Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23, 1 – 25, 18) – Abraham’s humility

The Torah reading Chayei Sarah begins with the death of Sarah – and Abraham then seeking a burial place for Sarah. Abraham wants to buy the cave of Machpelah, which is owned by Ephron, a Hittite. The Biblical text describes a remarkable conversation in which Abraham addresses the Hittites and Ephron – and, the conversation between Abraham and Ephron is really a negotiation. I want to emphasize that Abraham in purchasing the cave as a burial plot (together with the field in which it was located) from Ephron pays what appears to be an exorbitant price.


As background to this story, we must remember that Abraham according to the Biblical account has already previously been promised by God that he and his ancestors will inherit the land of Israel as a homeland (Genesis 17, 8) – “And I will give to you, and to your seed after you, the land of your sojourning, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession”. Abraham, in beginning to address the Hittites, strikingly presents himself as “a stranger and a sojourner” (Genesis 23, 4) among the Hittites. This is all the more striking in that the Hittites respond by referring to Abraham as “a mighty prince” (Genesis 23, 6) among them telling Abraham to bury his dead in any burial plot that he would like – and, apparently without paying. In response, Abraham – and, this is even more striking – rises up (as he had apparently been sitting together with the Hittites) in order to bow down before the Hittites (Genesis 23, 7). Abraham then asks the Hittites to beg of Ephron the Hittite that Abraham be allowed to speak to Ephron in order to purchase the cave of Machpelah and to pay full price for the cave – refusing the offer of the other Hittites to choose a burial plot among them apparently without payment.


Moreover, the Hittites are pagan idol worshippers – and, yet, Abraham on the face of it humiliates himself before pagan idol worshippers, especially in rising up to bow down before the Hittites and asking them to beg of Ephron that Abraham be allowed to speak to Ephron. Abraham speaks of himself as “a stranger and a sojourner” among the Hittites, while the Hittites view him as a “mighty prince” among them – and, he does not lay claim to the land of Canaan as his own possession despite the Divine promise of his inheriting the land of Canaan as an everlasting possession having according to the Biblical account already been given to him.


I want to suggest that Abraham is actually not humiliating himself but elevating himself spiritually by displaying humility, one of the most important religious traits – and, there is a midrash (rabbinic commentary) that says “come and see the humility of Abraham our father that God promised to give him and to his seed the land (of Canaan) forever and yet now he can only find a burial plot by paying a high price”. Humility is an ultimate religious value both in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmudic tradition.


Micah the prophet, in one of the most remarkable passages of the Bible, expresses the essence of religion in the Biblical conception (Micah 6, 8) – “It has been told you, O human, what is good, and what the Lord demands of you: to do justice, and to love lovingkindness, and to walk humbly with your God”. The essence of religion, for Micah, is justice, lovingkindness and humility – and, these ultimate religious values are expressed in Micah’s messianic vision of all people living in peace and security together with theological tolerance and freedom of worship for all including pagans (Micah 4, 3-5).


And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.  But, they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid:  For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.  For all people will walk everyone in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.


Strikingly, in Micah’s anti-theological vision there is no demand or expectation that other peoples or pagans will adopt Israelite or Jewish theological beliefs. Micah says that “all people will walk everyone in the name of his god” – and, the word walk is very significant. The word walk clearly implies action, and indicates that Micah is speaking not only about theological tolerance toward pagans concerning their different beliefs but he is speaking about tolerance toward their way of worship and way of life as well. In Micah’s vision, other peoples will continue to worship as they wish according to their own culture (“everyone in the name of his god”), and what will unite us is our living together in peace and security without fear. Abraham exemplifies in his attitude to the Hittites the kind of humility that for Micah is a foundation of religion allowing Abraham to live in peace with his pagan neighbors in accordance with Micah’s messianic vision.


In the Talmudic tradition, humility is also an ultimate religious value. Regarding two great Talmudic teachers, Hillel and Shammai, the Talmud teaches (Shabbat 30b) – “a person should always be humble like Hillel, and not strict like Shammai”. Humility is a character trait that implies precedence of peace between people over truth – and, one who is intellectually humble will not have an arrogant attitude of superiority assuming a monopoly on truth. Intellectual humility will express itself in a commitment to pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance in the face of disagreement. Strictness is a character trait that implies that truth takes precedence over peace between people – as one who is strict is stringent in enforcing or adhering to requirements and principles. Strictness is an unwillingness to compromise truth and strict justice.


There is a remarkable Talmudic source (Eruvin 13b) relating to the question of how we can determine law, and know how to act, when there are differing schools of thought. The Talmud raises the question regarding the many debates between Beit Hillel (the school of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the school of Shammai) – two schools of thought in the early Talmudic period, which developed on the basis of the differing conceptions and approaches of the teachers Hillel and Shammai:


Three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated – these saying the law is according to us and these saying the law is according to us. A Heavenly voice proclaimed:  “Both these and these are the words of the living God, and the law is according to Beit Hillel”.  And, if both these and these are the words of the living God, on what account is Beit Hillel privileged to establish the law according to them? – because they are easy going and humble, and they teach both their own views and those of Beit Shammai.  And not only that, but they teach the views of Beit Shammai before their own.


The Talmud here raises a fundamental problem as to how we can determine law (how to act) if we accept that the contradictory views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are both true (“the words of the living God”). The answer that the law is decided in accordance with the views of Beit Hillel because of their superior moral character traits is striking in that the law is determined according to a non-legal standard. It is possible to rationalize that the Talmud is actually suggesting a legal standard by which the law is decided – in accordance with the views of Beit Hillel not due to their superior moral character traits but due to their superior learning and method of study in that they present the views of Beit Shammai in addition to their own. But, this is a weak rationalization, as the Talmud explicitly emphasizes that not only did Beit Hillel present the views of Beit Shammai but they taught them prior to presenting their own – “And not only that, but they teach the views of Beit Shammai before their own”. To present the views of Beit Shammai together with their own may be understood as representing a superior method of study leading to greater knowledge and wisdom on the part of Beit Hillel. However, for Beit Hillel to present the views of Beit Shammai prior to their own in no way contributes to greater knowledge, and is simply an expression of their respect and moral sensitivity.


By the way, the term used in the source for humility (עלובים) regarding Beit Hillel literally means to be insulted.  Unfortunately, as an expression of widespread intolerance in the Jewish world there are those who often utter statements regarding fellow Jews (as well as regarding non-Jews) that are insulting. I emphasize that Beit Hillel is not described as insulting others (מעליבים) but as being willing to be insulted by others (עלובים) as an expression of their humility.


It is thus the moral values of Beit Hillel, as emphasized in the source (“because they are easy going and humble”), and commitment to such democratic values as pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance, that constitutes the reason, according to the Talmud, that the law is established according to Beit Hillel. This then is the connection to the first part of the source – the declaration in the first part that both the views of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are “the words of the living God” necessarily implies that mutual respect is to obtain between the schools expressing a commitment to pluralism as a moral and democratic principle in which contradictory viewpoints are appreciated as reflecting complementary aspects of truth. In the second part Beit Hillel is viewed as exemplifying such a commitment to moral and democratic values of pluralism, mutual respect and tolerance demonstrating that they are worthy of having the law established according to their views – and, Beit Hillel in displaying humility continue the way not only of their teacher Hillel but also of Abraham the spiritual father of the Jewish people.


Jeffrey Radon

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