Author's Note on Parshat Chayei Sarah

Author's Note on Parshat Chayei Sarah

Date: November 26, 2016
26 Cheshvan 5777

In the 1930 Marx Brothers movie, Animal Crackers, Groucho Marx plays the role of Captain Jeffrey Spaulding, an African explorer attending a party in his honor at the estate of society matron Mrs. Rittenhouse.  Upon his arrival at the party, a famous song (one that stuck with the comedian throughout his career) was sung and went like this:

Hello, I must be going,
I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going.
I’m glad I came, but just the same I must be going.

(Mrs. Rittenhouse)
For my sake you must stay.
If you should go away,
You’d spoil this party I am throwing.

I’ll stay a week or two,
I’ll stay the summer through,
But I am telling you,
I must be going.

Without spending too much time analyzing what is a joke of a song, the comedic play on words is that Captain Spaulding doesn’t know if he is coming or going – is he staying as a permanent guest or is he just passing through town as it were?

L’havdil, by way of contrast, we see a similar idea in Parshat Chayei Sarah.  Avraham got up from mourning for his beloved wife Sarah.  He approached the community of Chevron in search of a burial plot.  In the elaborate negotiations to purchase a field from Ephron, Avraham explained (Chapter 23, verse 4):

גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם

I am a stranger/wanderer and a settler/resident with you…

This is an unusual statement.  Is Avraham a stranger, a wanderer, just passing through town or is he a settler, a resident in Chevron with more or less permanent roots?  Like our fictional movie character, is he staying or leaving?

This idea of being both a Ger and a Toshav is also found in Chapter 25 of the Book of Vayikra (Parshat Behar):

כג וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי־לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי־גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי.

Do not sell the land in perpetuity because the land is Mine; for you are sojourners and residents with me.

At one level, the verse says that we have no right to sell the land in perpetuity because we don’t own it; G-d owns the land.  In that context, the idea of being a sojourner makes sense.  If we are here temporarily, we cannot acquire a sufficient ownership interest to be able to sell the land in perpetuity.

Given that understanding, what does the Torah add by saying that we are residents?  Being a resident implies a sense of permanence such that we can acquire the land or property and then presumably sell or transfer it to another.

With regard to the verse in our Parsha, Rashi commented, based on the Midrash, that Avraham was telling the people of Chevron that whether you look at me (Avraham) as a Ger (sojourner) or a Toshav (resident) does not matter; either way, I will acquire the land because Hashem promised it to me.  Similarly, the verse in Vayikra might be a way of G-d saying to us that whether you look at yourselves as Gerim (sojourners) or Toshavim (residents) does not matter; either way the land belongs to G-d and cannot be sold by humans.

Rashi’s explanation certainly addresses the issue at the “simple,” or literal P’shat level of reading the Torah.  The point is that regardless of how we look at ourselves and our status in this world, G-d owns the land and will allow whomever He chooses to possess it for however long He wishes them to do so.

Yet we also know that there is so much more to understanding the Torah than just understanding the literal meaning.  I remember that when I was in college, I went to study in the university library and I needed to find a copy of the Torah.  So I went to the librarian and asked her how to find a copy.  “Should I look by title or by author?” I asked. “Do you keep it on the shelves with ‘fiction,’ ‘non-fiction,’ or ‘history’?” She said it could be found in “reference.”  I suppose that is a good place for it.  After all, the words of the Torah are not meant as a simple transcription of what was said.  The Torah is our reference guide on how to live our lives; it is the answer to the question “What does G-d want from us?”

This concept is particularly true when it comes to the stories told of Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov.  As Ramban explained (Bereishit, Chapter 12:6), Kol Mah she’eira l’avos, siman labanim/Everything that happened to the Patriarchs is a sign for their descendants.  There is a lesson we can learn today by studying that which the Torah tells us about Avraham.

So what is it that we can learn from the idea of travelling through our lives as both a Ger and a Toshav?

Our physical lives on this Earth are temporary – we are here for a relatively short time. As we read in Psalm 90, our years in this world number seventy, perhaps eighty if given the strength. Regardless of the number, our years are soon cut off and we fly away.  Given that temporary nature of our lives, the temptation might be to live for today and ignore tomorrow.  Or perhaps we might be led to despair – what is the point of it all if we will soon be gone?

Yet, Psalm 90 continues by asking G-d to teach us to number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom.  Our temporal/physical time is indeed temporary, but we have the power to create something today that will convert our status as temporary sojourners into permanent residents in the world.

In my line of work, I advise employers on pension plan obligations.  In the pension world, there is a rule that a tax-qualified pension plan must be a “permanent” plan.  If it is established knowing that it will only exist for a temporary period of time, the plan is not qualified.  Does that mean that the plan can never end? Not at all. Pension plans include detailed provisions addressing what will happen upon their eventual termination.  To be permanent does not mean that the plan cannot end; it means that the plan has to be established with the intent to be permanent even though its eventual end is contemplated at the outset.

So, too, the Torah is telling us that our lives must be established with the intent that they will be “permanent.”  Yes, we are temporary sojourners and our physical existence anticipates its eventual decline.  Yet we also have the ability to imbue our lives with a sense of holiness that will lead to a form of permanence.

We can do this, that is elevate our temporary existence into a more permanent one, by teaching our children diligently, observing the Mitzvot, and learning as much as we can about G-d and how we can fulfill the mission that G-d has for each of us.  All of these things help to create a permanent presence in this world and a permanent dwelling place for G-d.

In our relationships with those whom we love, we are also temporary sojourners and permanent residents.  It is noteworthy that Avraham recognized that he was both a temporary sojourner and a permanent resident right after he got up from mourning for his beloved wife Sarah.  He had just personally experienced how life is fleeting and temporary.  At the same time, he sought to acquire a burial plot in Chevron as a way of establishing a permanent presence for his family and the Jewish people.   We too are deeply connected to our loved ones with a feeling of what Rabbi Morris Adler called “both eternal duration and eternal inevitability.”[1] Yet, none of us can escape the inevitability of our own mortality.  In times of loss, we have to grieve, like Avraham did.  But we also have to remember that our grief is temporary and our love is permanent.  Our love enriches us permanently and our temporary grief makes us more sensitive to those permanent relationships.

At another level of understanding, the notion of being a Ger and a Toshav relates directly to our relationship with G-d.

To see how the text alludes to this understanding, consider that in Chassidic literature as well as classical Torah commentary and Rabbinic literature, “Anochi” is a term used to refer to G-d’s deepest essence.  The first word of the Ten Commandments is “Anochi.”  In that context, Anochi refers to G-d’s essence which was revealed to us at the giving of the Torah.  Anochi is not really a name of G-d.  To explain the idea, consider that my English name is Paul.  My Hebrew name is Shlomo.  I am also a husband, a father, a brother, a son, a friend, a boss, etc.  But who am “I” really?  Do any of the names that I use or that are directed at me define the entirety of me? Not really.  G-d is also called by many different names in the Torah.  No single name can capture His entirety or His essence. But when the Torah refers to G-d by the word “Anochi,” the Torah is referring to G-d’s entirety above and beyond anything that any single name can capture.

With that understanding of Anochi, let’s consider another way to understand what Avraham said.

גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם

I am (Anochi is) a stranger/wanderer and a settler/resident with you…

We see a similar idea in Psalm 39, verse 13 which seems to be a direct reference to our Parsha:

יג שִׁמְעָה־תְפִלָּתִי | ה’ וְשַׁוְעָתִי | הַאֲזִינָה אֶל־דִּמְעָתִי אַל־תֶּחֱרַשׁ כִּי גֵר אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ תּוֹשָׁב כְּכָל־אֲבוֹתָי.

Hear my prayer Hashem; listen to my outcry; do not be silent to my tears; for I am (Anochi is) a sojourner with you, a settler/resident like all my ancestors.

Just as Avraham argued to the people of Chevron that whether he is a Ger or a Toshav, he would acquire the land, Psalm 39 is asking G-d to listen to and accept our prayer whether G-d views us as a sojourner or a permanent resident in our relationship with Him.

Maybe Avraham’s statement to the people of Chevron also alludes to a broader principle hiding behind the text which was captured by Psalm 39.  Perhaps the Torah could be read as saying “Ger v’toshav” “a sojourner and a resident” — [pause] it doesn’t matter because [resume text] — “Anochi Imachem.” Anochi is with you. Sometimes in considering our relationship with G-d, some of us think that G-d is just a sojourner to us or we are a sojourner vis-à-vis G-d, we are just passing through town.  Sometimes we think we are a Toshav (a settler) with G-d and that G-d truly and permanently lives with us.  Both are true as we read in Psalms; our relationship with G-d can vary.  Whichever way we look at it, though, does not matter because Anochi is with us; G-d’s essence is with us either way and will reveal itself to us, perhaps when we least expect it.

This idea of being a sojourner and then a permanent resident with G-d is also alluded to in the hundred and nineteenth Psalm (119:19), where the Psalmist says to G-d:

יט גֵּר אָנֹכִי בָאָרֶץ אַל־תַּסְתֵּר מִמֶּנִּי מִצְוֹתֶיךָ.

“I am (Anochi is) a sojourner on the earth, do not hide your commandments from me.”

Imagine being lost in a new city and being on your own with no one to talk to. Then, imagine that a second stranger appears who is equally lost.  Even though you and the stranger might come from completely different places and backgrounds, you can confide in each other and develop a companionship. Had you not both been strangers, you never would have met, let alone developed such a close bond.  That is one way to understand what the Psalm means.  It is a way to say to G‑d: “Anochi” is a sojourner on earth – Anochi meaning both “I” and you G-d – therefore, do not hide from me but reveal your commandments so that we may form a binding relationship.

In other words, just like King David, we can say to G-d: “Yes, I am here as a temporary sojourner; but, in a way, so are you because we have not yet established your permanent home.  But if you join with me and allow me to join with you, we two sojourners can establish a permanent presence in this world where you can be a permanent resident and together we can build a presence that will last for all future generations with the coming of the Moshiach.”