Parshat Chayei Sarah
By Francesca Littman
In Parshat Chayei Sarah, Abraham’s final actions demonstrate his enduring commitment to the fulfillment of the divine will. Determined to bury Sarah in the cave of Machpelah, he begins business negotiations with the field’s owner Ephron. Cunningly, Ephron insists upon an exorbitantly high price for the field, which Abraham agrees to. Theoretically, Abraham could have responded by abrogating the deal and burying Sarah somewhere else. Ultimately, Abraham instead sacrifices much of his wealth to procure this chosen space for Sarah’s burial. Perhaps this is because he feels that this is the holy place to bury Sarah, as according to Eruvin, this cave is where Adam and Chava are buried.
Abraham’s steadfastness in prioritizing burying Sarah in the cave of Machpelah despite the financial sacrifice creates a prototype for our own commitment as the Jewish people to the ideals and practice of social justice. We live in a world in which many of the products that we use daily can be purchased cheaply and conveniently. How conscious are we of asking about the production process, including factors of wage fairness, child labor, and environmental considerations? Are our patterns of purchase and consumption elevating the manifestation of Torah ideals in the world, or curtailing them?
Abraham theoretically could have asked to purchase only part of the field or exclusively the cave, but instead he insisted on owning the entire field. Similarly, we should be committed to owning the products we buy fully by refraining from benefiting from workers who are not fully compensated for their labor. In the Torah scroll, the name of Ephron, who charges Abraham the exorbitant amount for the cave of Machpelah, is written with a vav and later without a vav. Our sages interpret this change to signify that Ephron lost part of his dignity after defrauding Abraham. This vav is also part of Hashem’s name, yud hay vav hay. In benefiting from unfair labor practices, do we lose a piece of our own divinity?
Nevertheless, how does one approach the complexities that often arise from rearranging financial priorities in pursuit of social justice? After Abraham buries his wife Sarah, he searches for a wife for Issac, Rivka. Whereas Rivka seemingly consents to the marriage, “I will go” (Bereishit 24:58), the text does not specifically state her age. Some commentators suggest that she was a little as three years old. Yet, because of Abraham’s reputation of kindness and justice, we as Abraham's descendants might suggest more favorable readings of the story. Perhaps Rivka, as the Ibn Ezra contends, was in fact much older, and even if not, perhaps her mental capabilities far surpassed those of a typical three-year-old.
Because of the aspirations to kindness and righteousness Abraham repeatedly demonstrates, as with his purchase of the cave of Machpelah from Ephron, we have a basis for interpreting the engagement of Rivka and Issac through a lens that empowers Rivka. May we remain dedicated to upholding Abraham's legacy of justice even if it comes at a greater financial expense to us. It is through this resolve that we remain committed to such holy ideals that our actions, specifically in choosing the items we buy, should further us towards empowering others and building a more just world.