Avraham and the Ideal of Rootless Outsider

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi William Friedman

Avraham takes on many roles in the Torah: he is a warrior, a family man, a solicitous host, a disputant with God, a servant of God, and more. But one aspect of his personality – one that, upon reflection, must have existed from an early point – is revealed most fully, I would argue, in two episodes that take place at late points in his life detailed in our parashah: the late-in-life purchase of a burial plot in Hevron, and his command that Yitzhak’s wife come from his family. Taken together, these episodes reveal an Avraham who places a high value on being an outsider, one who is not tied down to any specific place.

The parashah picks up in Hevron, one of the first places Avraham pitched his tent in Cana`an (Bereishit 13:18) many decades earlier. Despite this lengthy association, [1] Avraham clearly never planted firm roots there in the form of purchasing land, as revealed by his sudden need to negotiate for a burial plot (ahuzat kever) for Sarah. Indeed, Avraham’s opening declaration of ger ve-toshav anokhi imakhem – “a foreigner and a resident [2] am I with you” – may reveal more than an exaggerated humility, as noted by Malbi”m:

מלבים בראשית כג:ד

גר ותושב אנכי עמכם” – אברהם רצה דוקא אחוזת קבר שהוא בית קברות מיוחד אל כל המשפחהוהנה:

הגר לא ישאל אחוזת קבר אחר שאין דעתו לישב שם בקבע הוא ובני ביתו,

והתושב לא יצטרך לשאול אחוזת קבר באשר יש לו שם שדה ונחלה שיכול להקצות ממנה מקום לאחוזת קבר.

אבל אנכי גר עד עתה ואין לי פה שדה ואחוזה מכברועתה אני רוצה להיות תושב לשבת פה בקביעות עם בני ביתי,

לכן אבקש תנו לי אחוזת קבר עמכם,” שיהיה מיוחד לכל בני ביתי.

Avraham specifically desired an ahuzat kever, which is a cemetary designated for an entire family. But a ger would not ask for an ahuzat kever, given that he does not intend to settle there permanently with his family, while a toshav would not need to ask for a burial plot, given that he would already have a field and ancestral land there, a portion of which he could designate as space for a cemetary. I [= Avraham], however, have been, to this point, a ger, and [therefore] have no field or pre-existing holding. Now, however, I wish to become a toshav, to dwell here permanently with my family, and therefore am requesting that you give me a burial plot amongst you that will be designated for my entire family.

Waiting until the death of one’s long-term wife to begin to establish multigenerational stability in a place one has inhabited for a long time is rather strange behavior. It reveals, perhaps, an ambivalence towards – perhaps even an aversion to – setting down overly firm roots. This is deeply embedded in his biography from an early point; even before being personally called by God, his family had left Ur Kasdim, for unstated reasons (11:31). Perhaps his experience with rootlessness, with being unmoored, contributed to his selection by God.

Avraham’s affinity for the unrooted may also lie at the heart of his demand that his servant (unnamed here, but traditionally understood to be Eliezer) to “go to my birthplace to take a wife for Yitzhak” (24:4). R. Hayyim Paltiel notes how odd this instruction is: תימ‘ מה ראה במשפחתו והלא היו כולם עובדי עז – “What did he see in his family of origin? Weren’t they all idolators?!” The question could be sharpened even further: Why was a woman from his family of origin superior to the many converts (and their descendents) whom Avraham and Sarah had attracted to themselves as far back as their time in Haran (12:5)?

R. Paltiel’s answer suggests a certain nostalgia or projection on Avraham’s part: ויל דהיה יודע שאם הייתה מקרבת אצלו הייתה למידה יראת שמים – “One could say that he knew that if she was drawn to him [= Avraham? Yitzhak?] she would learn fear of Heaven.” Again one could ask: why should an idol-worshipping Chaldean woman from Avraham’s family be any more likely to learn fear of Heaven than a local Canaanite woman, let alone a descendant of those Avraham and Sarah had already drawn near in Haran? [3] It seems, rather, that Avraham was seeking a daughter-in-law who would be someone willing to leave her family and travel to a strange place. Perhaps he recognized that Yitzhak had not inherited his qualities of spiritual daring – perhaps could not, being rooted in Cana`an in a way that Avraham never had been – and sought to provide for Yitzhak someone possessed of the clarity that can only come from being an outsider.

The experience of being an unrooted foreigner in a place is often scary, subjecting one to powerlessness and demonization. That, of course, was the experience of benei yisrael in Mitzrayim, and the underpinning of the Torah’s many demands to treat the ger well is linked to that historical experience. But when Shemot prohibits oppressing the ger ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר – “because you know the life of the ger” perhaps it is not merely drawing on the memory of oppression, but on the positive model embodied and embraced by Avraham, the original ger. Jews have, of course, known both the benefits and the detriments of rootlessness over the millennia; the work of ameliorating the latter should not blind us to the former.

Shabbat Shalom!

Notes:

[1] The precise chronology and length of his residence there is difficult to calculate, by the time of Sarah’s death he has had more than fifty years of presence and relationship there. Sarah died at 127; Avraham was ten years older than her (Gen. 17:17), making him 137 at the time of her death. He journeyed to Cana`an at 75 (Gen. 12:4); even assuming a several year gap for the journey, the sojourn in Egypt, and traversing Cana`an, that still leaves a 50-60 year gap. Seder Olam 1 calculates his years of actual residence in Hevron as 25 years.

[2] Peshat is that ger ve-toshav is a singular term, not two separate declarations, as in Vayikra 25:47; the terms are used in poetic parallel in 1 Divrei HaYamim 29:15 and Tehillim 39:13. The commentaries, however, see a substantive distinction between the terms, as we will see presently.

[3] Cf. Abarbanel’s discussion here, who notes the same issue and offers a very different resolution grounded in Canaanite essentialism. But Rivka’s family were no angels, either.

Rabbi William Friedman (SBM ’03) is a doctoral candidate in ancient Judaism at Harvard University.

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