Posted on November 7th, 2012
Negotiation gets a bad rap these days. Many people see the give-and-take necessary to reach consensus as a kind of moral compromise, a sacrifice of ideals on the false-idol altar of base pragmatism. Compromise? Consensus? Agreement? Not words we have heard much in this election year…
But real progress in this world is usually the result of the masah-umatan, the “horsetrading” and “logrolling” that allow society to solve its problems and attain new and important accomplishments. Where difference of opinion exists, and it always does, reasonable negotiation will eventually lead us to productive resolution. The Torah teaches that lesson in several complex ways, particularly in this week’s portion of Chayei Sarah.
Chayei Sarah marks a transition in our Genesis narrative from the tales of Abraham and Sarah, our first Jewish father and mother, towards the next generation, which will feature Isaac and Rebeccah. But first we begin with an ending.
At the start of the portion we are told of the length of Sarah’s life, and almost by accident we learn of Sarah’s death. “The life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years,” the sedrah begins, and the famous Midrash on it tells us that Sarah was just as beautiful at the age of 100 as she was at 20, and that she was just as free of sin at 20 as she had been at 7. It is a fine encomium for a significant figure who now passes permanently from the scene.
Chayei Sarah is also a portion filled with negotiations that will have great influence on the future of the fledgling religion some day to be known as Judaism. The first extended section is actually dedicated to arranging for Sarah’s funeral, which involves Abraham purchasing the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the first piece of real estate owned by our people in what will eventually be known as the land of Israel. That cave will become the burial place not only for Sarah but for most of the patriarchs and matriarchs: Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah eventually all find their final resting place in Hebron.
In Chayei Sarah the purchase of this plot involves an elaborate bargaining session with the Hittite who owns it, and the payment of a huge sum for the first permanently Jewish land in the world, establishing Jewish legitimacy in the Middle East at a very early point in history. I once visited Machpelah, many years ago, when it was safe to travel to Hebron. It is an interesting shrine, at that time filled with candles and smoky, even a little bit spooky. I would say that it is not worth the potential danger to life and limb implicit in a trip to Palestinian Hebron these days…
After the Cave of Machpelah negotiation the narrative moves us forward with one last important, detailed episode of Abraham’s life. Abraham is old, and he sees that his son Isaac has not married—and perhaps, seems unlikely to do so without parental intervention. Abraham charges his trusted servant to go back to the Old Country of Sumeria—today’s Iraq—and bring back a suitable girl for Isaac to marry and carry on the line of believers in the one true God.
The servant goes on a great journey to Sumeria from Canaan. Once there, he offers the first extended prayer passage in the Torah, asking the God of Abraham for success on his delicate mission. Immediately, Rebecca appears to draw water from the city well in Haran. He knows she is the one for Isaac because she shows instinctive generosity and obvious intelligence. The servant, too, bargains, in this case with Rebecca’s duplicitous brother and father. Eventually they all arrange for her to become Isaac’s wife. But at the crucial moment of the narrative Rebecca’s family puts the question directly to her: “Will you go with this man?” That is, will she leave all she has known and journey to an unknown land and future husband?
This final negotiation of Chayei Sarah is brief. Rebecca agrees with alacrity to go along. Yes, she will leave the homeland, and her father’s house, and go to the land that will be shown to her. And so she goes, and meets Isaac, and the future of the people, and of monotheism, is assured.
These three negotiations revolve around crucial elements in our people’s history: land, descendants, and destiny. Without title to the land of Israel we would have remained homeless wanderers. Without descendants we would have simply ceased to be. And without the courageous choice of women and men—like Rebecca and Abraham before her—our destiny would have been disappearance.
As Jews, these remain our principal goals today, and often they still require negotiation to achieve: a secure land of Israel, our children and grandchildren’s commitment to Judaism, and the destiny of our people as a moral light to the nations.
But aren’t those causes worth negotiating for?