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Parashat Hayei Sarah

Abraham's End-of-Life Planning, and Ours

October 28, 2021

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By Rabbi Rob Scheinberg

The Torah portion of Hayei Sarah begins with tragedy. Abraham, dwelling in Beer Sheva, learns that his wife Sarah has died in the city of Hebron, a day’s journey away. He arrives to Sarah’s side “to cry for her and to eulogize her.” (v. 2) But for those who are familiar with traditional Jewish practices regarding care for the deceased, the next sentence makes this tragedy in Abraham’s life even more devastating: “And Abraham arose from the presence of his dead…” (v. 3)

Without burial plans already made for his wife, Abraham is forced – in the depth of his grief – to initiate a real estate transaction with his neighbors, the Hittites. The remainder of Genesis Chapter 23 describes these negotiations in exacting detail, perhaps in order to highlight how emotionally challenging this process was for Abraham in his vulnerable state.

Abraham approaches the Hittites to ask for the opportunity to purchase a grave in the region so he can bury his wife. The Hittites speak to him respectfully, even referring to him as “a prince of God in our midst,” and invite him to bury Sarah in their region, but they do not appear to be interested in selling him the land necessary for him to have an enduring land holding for generations to come. (Interpretations of the Hittites’ motivations differ; the medieval commentator Hizkuni, among others, notes that the Hittites don’t mind having his wife’s grave on their property, but they don’t relish the idea that the land holding will then eternally belong to Abraham and his descendants. This is likely why they keep referring to the graves as being “theirs” rather than Abraham’s; see v. 5.)

Following an initial round of negotiations with the Hittites, Abraham is able to speak directly with Efron the Hittite, the owner of the burial cave that Abraham would like to purchase. Abraham states his intention to buy it and asks for the price, but Efron seems reluctant to indicate a specific amount. Finally, Efron throws out a number – 400 shekels – which Abraham accepts, and what looks like a receipt for the sale is even included in the text of the torah: “Ephron’s land in Makhpelah, near Mamre – the field with its cave and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field – passed to Abraham as his possession, in the presence of the Hittites, of all who entered the gate of his town.” (v. 17-18).

We can’t really know whether Abraham purchased the cave for a fair price, but some commentators suggest that the price was far above market value, especially considering that Jeremiah pays only 17 shekels to redeem his ancestral land (Jeremiah 32:9; see Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Bretler, Jewish Study Bible, p. 48). Additionally, in a bargaining situation, the first price to be mentioned is usually an opening bid that will prompt a counter-offer. That Abraham simply accepts the opening bid provides another implication that he is overpaying for this burial cave. Perhaps Abraham’s vulnerable state of bereavement leads him to accept an offer that he would otherwise have refused or countered.

When Abraham concludes this complicated purchase process, he then buries his wife Sarah, but the words from verse 2 describing his emotional response are now absent, perhaps because his grieving process was interrupted.

Jewish texts include various instructions about how to relate to people “when their dead is before them.” At such a time, after the death but even before the burial, it is too early to extend words of comfort; in fact, words of comfort should not even be attempted at such a stage (Pirkei Avot 4:18). One in this state, an ‘onen,’ is considered exempt from all positive mitzvot, including prayer and the recitation of the Shema (see Mishnah Berakhot 3:1, and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Mourning, 4:6), because of a presumption that one is likely in such a state of anguish, and preoccupied with the arrangements for burial, that other tasks will be difficult.

Decisions about where to be buried are often fraught with meaning (as we see from Jacob’s and Joseph’s instructions to be transported from Egypt to the land of Israel, Genesis 47:29 and Genesis 50:25), and sometimes with regret (as we see from Jacob’s apparent end-of-life preoccupation with his decision to have buried Rachel in Bethlehem rather than in the family burial plot, Genesis 48:7). Following the difficult experience we read about at the beginning of Parashat Hayei Sarah, Abraham, through his purchase of a family burial plot, would go on to spare his children and grandchildren the responsibility of completing a complicated real estate transaction as an onen. And to this day, Jewish tradition encourages Abraham’s descendants, whenever possible, to avoid what Abraham experienced. We are told to bury our deceased relatives as promptly as possible – something that is much more likely to happen if families have the conversations in which we, hopefully long before death is imminent, clearly communicate our burial wishes, and listen closely when our loved ones communicate their burial wishes. That many families are reluctant to have such conversations is not surprising; it is intensely difficult to plan for death. And yet, rabbis and cantors and other Jewish leaders appropriately invest significant energy in encouraging such end-of-life conversations, about burial as well as about medical decision-making and the transmission of ethical values. Such a conversation is a supreme intergenerational gift. It’s a gift to the surviving relatives to help them to avoid making transactions in a vulnerable state, and to help them to know, rather than to guess, how to carry out their loved one’s wishes.  And it’s a gift to the deceased, to know that their wishes will be honored and that their values will live on.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Ph.D., is the Interim Rabbi in Residence at the Academy for Jewish Religion, where he teaches courses in Jewish Liturgy, as well as the Rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken. Rabbi Scheinberg was a member of the editorial committees for Mahzor Lev Shalem and Siddur Lev Shalem, the prayer books used in many Conservative congregations.