Wednesday, February 1st | 10 Shevat 5783

November 13, 2011 2:00 pm

A Lesson From Abraham on Jewish Diplomacy

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avatar by David Bratslavsky

Israel, Hebron, Cave of the Patriarchs from the south. Photo: Djempa.

Among the vignettes of Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs in the Torah portion of Chaye Sara, the genesis of Jewish history is revealed. Through principled diplomacy Abraham purchases the Cave of the Patriarchs (Maarat HaMachpelah) in Hebron as a burial site for his wife Sarah. He finds a fitting wife for his son Isaac, and ultimately Abraham is himself buried next to Sarah after God’s repeated promise that “to your offspring I will give this land [of Israel].”

From this embryo–a cave, a field, and his son Isaac to carry the covenant–emerges a nation blessed to be as numerous as the stars and inheritors of Israel. 3700 years later that promise lives on and the Cave of the Patriarchs, where Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah are also buried, remains a site of national heritage.

A careful reading of the story reveals a powerful message: At the time Abraham purchases the Cave of the Patriarchs, he is “an alien and stranger.” The Hittite prince who owns the cave unconvincingly assures Abraham, “I give it to you in the presence of my people. Bury your dead.”  But Abraham insists on acquiring full ownership even at a high price so that Jewish heritage would not be contingent on the good will of his fickle neighbors.

The second, perhaps more important takeaway, is that even a divine will requires the active participation of its subjects. Only with Abraham’s active persistence, girdled by unwavering conviction, the Cave of the Patriarchs becomes what it is.  As it was then, so it is now–securing Jewish national heritage is not an exercise in passivity. It requires the same active conviction that led to the formation of modern Israel. As Herzl aptly put it, “If you will it, it is no dream.”

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Finally, the story presents the virtue of patience. When purchasing the burial site, nothing seems more remote than the inheritance of Israel and the fulfillment of nationhood. Abraham knows he is taking bold steps on a journey that will outlive him by thousands of years. Yet he dies content, foreshadowing the maxim in Ecclesiastes, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.”

Conviction, bold action, and patience–this is the national heritage that is symbolized by Maarat HaMachpelah, the Cave of our Patriarchs.  Abraham “prostrated himself to the people of the land” in order to secure this heritage. Today, the Jewish people must merely stand up for it.  For when we do, the seemingly insurmountable becomes a reality of historic proportions.

David Bratslavsky analyzes US foreign policy and the Middle East. He studied politics, language, and religion in Washington, D.C., Tel Aviv, Cairo and Jerusalem.

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