Parashat Chayei Sarah

By Maharat Ruth Friedman

In this week’s parsha, Avraham, who has spent much of the time we have known him wandering, wishes to establish roots in Hevron. The death of Sarah creates a need for him to pay honor to her, and so after his initial mourning, Avraham approaches the children of Chet to humbly request a grave in which to bury her. 

Avraham introduces his request by qualifying his status vis-à-vis the inhabitants of the land:

 גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם

I am a ger (stranger) and a toshav (resident) among you.

Avraham’s choice of language is striking and prompts a series of questions. Why does he refer to himself as both a stranger and a resident, seemingly mutually exclusive identities? Why does he feel the need to categorize himself as part of his request? What is he trying to convey with these two words?

Rashi refers to the Midrash in Breishit Rabbah 58:6 to answer this question. 

 ומדרש אגדה אם תרצו הריני גר, ואם לאו אהיה תושב ואטלנה מן הדין שאמר לי הקב”ה(לעיל יב ז) לזרעך אתן אתי הארץ הזאת

If you wish [to sell the land to me,] I will be like a ger [and purchase it]. But if not, I will be like a toshav and take it legally, for God has said to me “To your offspring, I will give this land.”

The Midrash understands ger and toshav to be mutually exclusive terms and therefore imagines Avraham’s words as a challenge to the sons of Chet. If you wish to sell me the land, he says, then I will act like a ger, and pay for the land. But if you don’t wish to sell me the land, then I will act as a toshav, and take it from you without payment, for God has already promised the land to me. According to the Midrash, one was either a stranger, without burial land rights, or a toshav, a resident, with burial land rights.

The Rashbam presents a much different interpretation. He writes:

גר ותושב אנכי [עמכם] – מארץ נכרייה באתי לגור כאן ונתיישבתי עמכם, לכן אין לי מקום קברי אבות הנה

תנו לי אחוזת קבר – הניחו לי לקנות קרקע כאן ותתרצו אתם יושבי העיר להניח לי לקבור בה מתי משפחתי, כי אחוזת קבר אין יכול להיות אלא ברצון כל בני העיר. וכן מוכיח לפנינו כשנתן אברהם הכסף לעפרון ויקם [וגו’] לאברהם למקנה ואחרי כן קבר אברהם [וגו’] וקם לו לאחוזת קבר מאת כל בני חת:

“I am a ger (stranger) and a toshav (resident) among you” – I came from a foreign land to live here, and I have settled among you. Therefore, I do not have a burial plot. Allow me to purchase land here, and may the residents of the city desire to give me the land so I can bury the dead of my family. For I can only have a burial plot if the whole city desires it, as we see when Avraham pays Ephron and it is established for him as a plot, and the text says “[It was] to Abraham as a possession before the eyes of the sons of Heth” (23:18).

Unlike Rashi, the Rashbam understands Avraham’s words to imply that there are multiple layers of belonging. Avraham arrived in Hevron as a ger, a stranger from a foreign land. By settling in Hevron he then became a toshav, a resident among the people. However, he still was not considered a full member of the surrounding society, with the right to bury his family in a local plot. For that right, to make an eternal mark upon the landscape of that society, simply settling there was not sufficient. Rather,  all members of the city needed to accept him to bestow upon him the full rights of membership and to confer an ultimate sense of belonging.

Many of the commentaries view the fact that Avraham had to be granted permission from the whole community to be an act of degradation to him. However, when considered from the perspective of the residents of the city, we see a different narrative emerge – one in which the members of a community must all be engaged in the act of welcoming the strangers in our midst. Avraham secured certain rights in Chet simply by settling in their midst. But, with Sarah’s death, he sought a more intimate connection with the land, and indirectly, with the nation of Chet. To form this bond, Avraham needed to connect with the entire people of Chet, and the people of Chet offered him such an embrace. 

Much of the painful discourse in our community centers around questions of belonging. Some consider these questions to be black and white – either someone is fully “in”, or they are out. But as the Rashbam teaches us, the encounter between Avraham and the people of Chet illustrates the many layers of belonging that a person can have in a community. Through his interpretation, we can understand this story as a beautiful lesson to us that our communities must always remember the vulnerability of those in our midst who feel that they do not belong, and ensure that they are welcomed with a loving embrace. 

Discussion Questions

  1. In what sort of contexts do you feel like a stranger “ger” and what sort like a resident “toshav.”   Do you feel like both  contexts? 
  2. Where is home?  For you, your parents, grandparents? 
  3. To what groups do you belong and can you describe the process of coming to belong? 
  4. Do you prefer belonging in the center of groups or is membership periphery sometimes more comfortable?