Chayei Sarah: Finding Our Humanity Through Our Tribalism
Humanity has expanded rapidly since the days of the Torah. In his anthropological treatise, Sapiens, Israeli writer Yuval Noah Harari describes the development of humanoid tribes, explaining that the maximum community the human brain could keep straight at one time was 120 people. It was for this reason that villages, congregations, and communities were kept relatively limited for much of human history; it would be impossible to keep straight any group larger than that.
Our world today has far exceeded this ability to maintain relationships. Social media have allowed for the rapid expansion of our tribes, with “friends” and “followers” numbering in the thousands, rather than the dozens. Whereas human evolution would have naturally rendered the obscure characters from high school irrelevant by the time of adulthood, we now hold onto them in our library of friendship, expanding the rolodex ( A 21st century anachronism, but we’re talking about the Bible here, so I think one more can be forgiven.) to the point that all interactions and intersections are dulled.
And so it is no small thing that, when we look at Parashat Chayei Sarah, we read the story of a man who pushes the boundaries on tribal awareness, and requests kindness from strangers in a way that would seem out of character for the time. The words “Chayei Sarah,” the “life of Sarah,” actually bring forth the story of the death of our first matriarch. The portion opens, “Sarah’s life was a hundred and twenty seven years, these were the years of Sarah’s life.” It was, the text emphasizes, her life that is being recognized in this moment, rather than the death that has ended it. Throughout the early chapters of Genesis, Sarah is a complicated character. We see none of her life before the covenant, and see very little other than child-rearing and conflict with Hagar in the interactions she does have. In fact, in the sequence of the almost-sacrifice of Isaac, she is entirely absent from the narrative. The text in this sequence alludes to a life well lived, a life not only full of years, but full of experience and vibrancy. With the too-little information we have about the matriarchs as characters throughout the narrative, this acknowledgement, even as subtle as it is, is a moment of honor for the progenitor of the Jewish people.
It is when Abraham looks to bury his deceased wife that we begin to learn about the interactions between tribes. Abraham goes to the Hittite people and requests of them a burial plot, a place to call his own. He says, “I am a resident alien dwelling amongst you. Grant me a plot with you, and let me bury my dead now before me.” He is acknowledging two truths: he is both a person who dwells upon the land, and yet separate. He is a piece of the community, but tangentially enough to be considered his own tribal community distinct from their own.
The people respond with honor, for his reputation has preceded him. They insist that he take whatever plot pleases him, that they give it to him as a gift. After a negotiation with Ephron, son of Zohar, Abraham insists on paying the fair price for the land, insists on acquiring it on the up and up, and buries Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, a space that has grown in significance throughout the centuries, a named location that those seeking validation for their biblical readings have tried to claim as real, tangible, and proof.
There are two ways of interpreting this negotiation between Abraham and Ephron. The cynical version of the story is that Abraham insists on buying the plot of land outright because he needs to render his claim on the land irrevocably valid. The history of the Jewish people is all about establishing ownership, about claiming that God gave us the Promised Land, and that our claim on it is ironclad. If this land was a gift from the Hittites, it would run the risk that they could take it back at any time, that in future generations they could render our claim to it null-and-void. Using the Torah as a “receipt of sale” for the land is an enormously difficult notion by today’s standards, but at the time of the Torah’s conception, this would be the most straightforward way of establishing true and eternal autonomy: God gave it to us, and if that weren’t enough for you, Abraham ALSO acquired it legally. See, we have the documentation to prove it.
Looked at from a more thoughtful, empathetic perspective, though, this is a story of grief and loss, and the way “others” rise to the occasion to demonstrate kindness and compassion. At the time of his grief, Abraham finds himself in a place where he has limited autonomy, where his ability to take care of himself only goes as far as he is able to make the natives accept his needs. Upon requesting help, Abraham is not only given what he needs, but is offered the ultimate gift of kindness. The people of the land trip over themselves to give the best of what they have, to give everything he might need and more. They said, “Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (Gen. 23:6) The entire community speaks of one voice: your needs will be met by anyone. Even when Abraham does name the plot he wishes to purchase, Ephron offers perhaps an even greater kindness by agreeing to allow Abraham to pay the proper price for the land, rather than continuing to force the gift upon him. Amidst loss and pain, Ephron offers Abraham the dignity of being able to do as he wishes, allows him the honor of being able to fend for his own needs, despite Ephron’s own desire to accept no money for the land.
In the context of tribalism, this is a miraculous interaction for the Torah, the specific book of the Jewish people to preserve. Many places throughout the Bible, we read stories that are meant to depict local tribes as brutish, as barbarians. But in this iteration, the Torah depicts a people seeing a stranger living amongst them and going out of their way to offer him kindness. This could be because Abraham’s reputation precedes him; we are told many times throughout the book of Genesis that the people who bless Abraham’s family will be blessed, and those that curse them will be cursed. But the willingness of these people to meet the needs of this resident alien are the first examples of the commandment we receive over and over again in the rest of the Torah: “You will love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Deut. 10:19, among others) Even before we learned the lesson of being strangers in Egypt, the Hittities show Abraham what it means to be kind to those who dwell amongst them, even when that means extending beyond our perception of our own tribe.
When it is Abraham’s turn to die, the kindness of the Hittites is not forgotten. Abraham dies and, the text goes on, “His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, facing Mamre, the field that Abraham had bought from the Hittites; there Abraham was buried, and Sarah his wife.” (Gen. 25:9-10) The compassion offered to Abraham echoes throughout Jewish history, read year after year by our people. But more than the historical record, the act of burial tells the lesson of compassion and collaboration equally beautifully. Abraham is buried by both of his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, the true and legitimate heir as well as the son who was separate, cast out, an “other” in his own right. The future of these two people would hold countless acts of distrust, conflict, and pain, but in this moment, they join together in collaboration, join together to honor their father and offer him the gift of their own tolerance for one another.
We, as human beings, have an innate attraction to looking after the members of our own tribes. We don’t need a biblical story to remind us that we should look after the people who are like us, the people who are native to our own land. But we also know that we have to cultivate our willingness to help the stranger, to offer kindness that costs us a little bit of empathy, a little bit of ourselves in the name of helping someone who may have no ability to help us in return. The interaction between the Hittites and Abraham show us that it is possible to step out of our own communal needs in favor of rising to the occasion of another person’s needs, and the collaboration between Isaac and Ishmael shows us that no conflict is too large that we can’t put it down in times that call for compassion and grace, rather than selfishness and tension.
Being kind to those in our tribes is easy. Being kind to those outside our community requires a different kind of skill. And this week’s reading teaches us that not only is it possible, but that there are others out there who are working just as hard to be kind to us as we are working to be kind to them.