“Avraham arose from before his dead, and he spoke to the children of Chet, saying: I am a foreigner and a resident alien with you. Give me a burial portion with you, and I will bury my dead from before me. The children of Chet answered Avraham, saying to him: Hear us , my Lord: You are a prince of God in our midst, in the choicest of our graves bury your dead; none of us shall withhold his grave from you, from burying your dead. Avraham arose and prostrated himself before the people of the land, before the children of Chet. He spoke with them, saying: If you are willing to bury my dead from before me, heed me, and intercede for me with Ephron ben Tzochar, that he will give to me the Cave of Machpela, that is his, which is at the edge of his field; he shall give it to me for a full price in your midst for a burial portion… Avraham prostrated himself before the people of the land.” (Bereishit 23:1-9 & 12)

The above passage is the run-up to the negotiations between Avraham and Ephron that resulted in the sale of the Machpelah cave to the patriarch as an ancestral burial ground. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (in Oznayim LaTorah) is perplexed by Avraham’s conduct. Why did he need to go to the tribespeople of Chet and bow before them several times? What was the need for all the formalities and the seemingly sycophantic behaviour? Why did Avraham not go directly to Ephron and offer him a tidy sum for the cave and the surrounding land? Surely Ephron would have acceded to the sale?

Rabbi Sorotzkin notes that there were different reactions from the inhabitants of Canaan to God’s promise to Avraham that his seed would inherit the land (Bereishit 15:18), “On that day, the Lord established a covenant with Avram, saying: To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River.” Avimelech, king of the Philistines believed fully that God would make good on His promise. To this end, he approached Avraham and asked to make a covenant with him whereby Avraham would not (ibid 21:23) “deceive me, or my son, or my son’s son”. Avimelech realised that Avraham would eventually become the owner of Canaan and that his people, the Philistines, would become Avraham’s subjects. He therefore sought a treaty with Avraham to ensure that his nation would be dealt with fairly as a minority.

The Chet tribe reacted in completely the opposite way. They set out to thwart any attempt by Avraham to purchase land. They even passed a law forbidding the sale of land to Avraham or his descendants. Rabbi Sorotzkin compares this to the infamous “White Paper” of 1939. Issued on May 23, 1939, the White Paper rejected the Peel Commission’s partition plan of 1937 on the grounds that it was not feasible. The document stated that Palestine would be neither a Jewish state nor an Arab one but an independent state to be established within ten years. Jewish immigration to Palestine was limited to 75,000 for the first five years, subject to the country’s “economic absorptive capacity”, and would later be contingent on Arab consent. Stringent restrictions were imposed on land acquisition by Jews. Jews were restricted from buying Arab land in all but 5% of the Mandate area. The White Paper, which was championed by Neville Chamberlain as a reaction to the Arab revolts of 1936-1939, acted as the governing policy for Mandatory Palestine from 1939 to the 1948 British departure. It was, effectively, a repudiation of the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. Avraham could not go directly to Ephron because he was barred from purchasing land in Canaan. Thus he first had to approach the elders of Chet and ask their permission to buy a small parcel of land. Avraham engaged in acts of diplomacy so that he could secure a burial plot for Sarah, himself and his family.

In light of the events of seventh October and the ensuing war in Gaza, it is worth noting that the White Paper rejected the Peel Commission – which the British government had accepted – as a result of Arab discontent. Here is the background, adapted from Jewish Virtual Library: At the height of the 1936-39 disturbances, a royal commission of inquiry came to Palestine from London to investigate the roots of the Arab-Jewish conflict and to propose solutions. The commission, headed by Lord Robert Peel, heard a great deal of testimony in Palestine, and in July 1937 issued its recommendations: to abolish the Mandate and partition the country between the two peoples. Only a zone between Jaffa and Jerusalem, about 8% of Palestine, would remain under the British mandate and international supervision. The Jewish state would include the coastal strip stretching from Mount Carmel to south of Be’er Tuvia, as well as the Jezreel Valley and the Galilee, about 17% of Palestine. The Arab state would consist of about 75% and include the hill regions, Judea and Samaria, and the Negev. The commission also called for the Arab state to be united with Transjordan. Until the establishment of the two states, the commission recommended Jews should be prohibited from purchasing land in the area allocated to the Arab state. To overcome demarcation problems, it was proposed that land exchanges be carried out concurrently with the transfer of population from one area to the other. Demarcation of the precise borders of the states was entrusted to a technical partition committee. The British government accepted the recommendations of the Peel Commission regarding the partition of Palestine, and the announcement was endorsed by Parliament in London. Among the Jews, bitter disagreements erupted between supporters and opponents, but the option became moot when the Arabs rejected the proposal on October 11, 1938. Arab leaders rejected the Balfour Declaration, reiterated their opposition to Jewish immigration, and concluded: “Partition would create in Palestine two neighboring hostile states between which it is impossible to imagine the possibility of an exchange of inhabitants, property and holy places, such as mosques, churches, and cemeteries. Furthermore, partition would deprive Arabs of their land, which constitutes the bulk of their wealth in the territory to be ceded to the Jewish State.”

This has been a constant pattern in Israel-Arab relations: ever larger tracts of land are offered for a Palestinian state but they are always rejected by the Arabs for some reason or another. Hamas’s brutal attack has made it clear: This is not a question of the size or location of a Palestinian state. This conflict is about Israel’s very existence. They do not tolerate a Jewish state on “their land”. With a stance like that, negotiations are impossible. 

Lee, Chani Merryl and Naomi join me in wishing you Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Liebenberg

Link to Rabbi’s YouTube message for the parsha:

*Tuesday 14 November – Rosh Chodesh Kislev

Kislev contains the Festival of Chanukah, which begins on the 25th day of the month and continues for eight days, ending in the month of Tevet. The Molad (appearance of the new moon) for Kislev is on Monday 13 November, at 07h17 and 2 chalakim (a chelek, literally a “portion”, is a Talmudic measure of time equal to one-eighteenth of a minute, or 3 and 1/3 seconds).

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