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  • Writer's pictureJames Kennard

Chayei Sarah: A Stranger and a Resident

Sarah has died. Avraham has to purchase an eternal resting place for her, which will become the first piece of the land of Israel to belong to the Jewish people.

He approaches the Hittite tribe, wishing to buy from them the Cave of Machpelah, and introduces himself by stating:

גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי. (בראשית כג:ד)

I am a stranger/sojourner and a resident living with you. Give me a possession of a grave with you, that I may bury my dead from before me. (Bereishit 23:4)

What is the relationship between גֵּר and תּוֹשָׁב? Is Avraham both of them at the same time? Or consecutively? Are they indeed compatible in any way? We will see three answers, one from the Rashbam and two from Rashi, that cover all possibilities.

(See also Vayikra 25:47, where the phrase גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב is considered to be a hendiadys - two nouns with a single meaning, as it they were actually an adjective and a noun. In that case the combination means “a resident stranger”. Compare Macbeth’s “sound and fury” which is a more dramatic way of saying “furious sound”.)

The Rashbam (12th century France) sees גֵּר and תּוֹשָׁב in our verse as representing a chronological progression: 

I came from a foreign land to sojourn here (גר) and I settled with you (תושב). Therefore I do not have an inherited burial place here.מארץ נכריה באתי לגור כאן ונתישבתי עמכם לכן אין לי מקום קברות אבות הנה:

Precisely because Avraham is an immigrant, albeit one fully integrated (תושב), he does not have a burial place already to call his own. Hence there is a link between the beginning and end of the verse.

Rashi (11th century France) offers two explanations. 

גר מארץ אחרת ונתישבתי עמכם,  ומ"א אם תרצו הריני גר ואם לאו אהיה תושב ואטלנה מן הדין שא"ל הקב"ה לזרעך אתן את הארץ הזאת:

(I am) a stranger (גר) from another land, and I have settled (תושב)  with you. And the Midrash says: if you are willing, I will be a stranger (גר), and if not I will be a resident (תושב), and take it (the cave) based on my legal right, because the Holy One, Blessed be He said to me “I will give this land to your descendants (Bereishit 12:7)

Nechama Leibowitz (20th century Israel) taught her students the skill of identifying the particular point of difference between two interpretations. In this case she describes the contrast thus: for Rashi’s first explanation גֵּר and תּוֹשָׁב are states that can exist simultaneously, but for his second, they are mutually exclusive options. Either Avraham can act like a stranger, and purchase the cave (as he is currently preparing to do), but the veiled threat is that he has the alternative option of claiming the territory anyway as part of his gift from Hashem.

(Note that despite the Rashbam’s customary faithfulness to the simple meaning of the text, his explanation deviates from the implication in Avraham’s words that he is a גֵּר and תּוֹשָׁב at the same time. This problem is absent from Rashi’s first explanation which, although superficially similar to the Rashbam’s, is subtly different, since according to Rashi, Avraham is still a גר because of his origins, whilst simultaneously being a תושב because of his current status. See also Rashi on Vayikra 25:47).

The Chizkuni (13th century, France) raises a question on Rashi’s second explanation, based on Rashi’s own words on Bereishit 13:7, explaining the rift between the shepherds of Avraham and those of his nephew, Lot.

יהי ריב – לפי שהיו רועיו של לוט רשעים ומרעין בהמתן בשדות אחרים, ורועי אברהם מוכיחין אותן על הגזל, והן אומרים: נתנה הארץ לאברהם ולו אין יורש ולוט יורשו, ואין זה גזל. והכתוב אומר: והכנעני אז בארץ, ולא זכה בה אברהם עדיין.

There was a quarrel because Lot's shepherds were wicked and grazed their cattle in other people's fields. Avraham's shepherds rebuked them for an act of robbery, but they replied, "The land has been given to Avraham, and since he has no son as heir, Lot will be his heir: therefore this is not robbery". The verse states: "The Canaanite and the Perizzite lived then in the land", and Avraham had not yet merited (to inherit the land).

If Rashi on 23:4 says that Avraham had a right to take the Cave of Machpelah since the entire land had been promised to him, why does Rashi himself on 13:7 say that Lot’s shepherds were at fault, because “Avraham had not yet merited to inherit the land”?

The Chizkuni answers that the promise of the land was to Avraham’s descendants (as Rashi on 23:4 is careful to quote precisely from Bereishit 12:7). At the time of the argument between the shepherds, Avraham has no children and therefore the promise of the land has not come into effect. Conversely, when he meets the Hittites in 23:4 Yitzhak has been born and the promise to give the land of Israel to Avraham’s descendants can now come into effect.

Yet this answer raises another question. It implies that Rashi says that Avraham’s claim can only be made on behalf of his children, yet he clearly wishes to acquire the cave for himself. The answer therefore must be that  Avraham in fact wants to acquire the property for the sake of the Jewish people as a whole (his descendants), in perpetuity, as would naturally be the case regarding a burial place, which would be available for generations to come.

This idea is implied by Rashi’s explanation of the apparent repetition in verses 17-20.

(יז) וַיָּקׇם שְׂדֵה עֶפְרוֹן אֲשֶׁר בַּמַּכְפֵּלָה אֲשֶׁר לִפְנֵי מַמְרֵא הַשָּׂדֶה וְהַמְּעָרָה ... (יח) לְאַבְרָהָם לְמִקְנָה ... (יט) וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן קָבַר אַבְרָהָם אֶת שָׂרָה אִשְׁתּוֹ אֶל מְעָרַת שְׂדֵה הַמַּכְפֵּלָה עַל פְּנֵי מַמְרֵא הִוא חֶבְרוֹן בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן. (כ) וַיָּקׇם הַשָּׂדֶה וְהַמְּעָרָה אֲשֶׁר בּוֹ לְאַבְרָהָם לַאֲחֻזַּת קָבֶר מֵאֵת בְּנֵי חֵת.

(17) So the field of Ephron, which was in Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field, the cave… were established (18) to Avraham for a possession... (19) After this, Avraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah before Mamre that is, Hevron, in the land of Canaan. (20) The field, and the cave that is in it, were established to Avraham for a possession of a burying place by the Hittites.

Was the field and cave established as belonging to Avraham twice, once in verse 18 and again in verse 20? Rashi explains that in verse 18, the field and cave were bought by Avraham, but in verse 20, after Avraham has dedicated the place to be used for burial, it becomes a possession - the property of his descendants for eternity.

Rav Soloveitchik (20th century America) sees the tension between being a stranger and a resident as a paradigm for our relationship with the non-Jewish society around us.

Avraham’s definition of his dual status, we believe, describes with profound accuracy the historical position of the Jew who resides in a predominantly non-Jewish society. He was a resident, like other inhabitants of Cana’an, sharing with them a concern for the welfare of society, digging wells and contributing to the progress of the country in loyalty to its government and institutions. Here, Avraham was clearly a fellow citizen,a patriot among compatriots, joining others in advancing the common welfare.  However, there was another aspect, the spiritual, in which Avraham regarded himself as a stranger. His identification and solidarity with his fellow citizens in the secular realm did not imply his readiness to relinquish any aspects of his religious uniqueness. His was a different faith and he was governed by perceptions, truths and observances which set him apart from the larger faith community. In this regard Avraham and his descendants would always remain “strangers” . . . Our approach to the outside world has always been of an ambivalent character. We cooperate with members of other faiths in all fields of human endeavour but, simultaneously, we seek to preserve our distinct integrity which inevitably involves aspects of separateness. This is a paradoxical situation. Yet, paraphrasing the words of our first ancestor, Avraham, we are very much residents in general human society while, at the same time, strangers and outsiders in our persistent endeavour to preserve our historic religious identity. (Reflections of the Rav, p. 169)

To conclude, another verse in the Torah implies clearly that גֵּר and תּוֹשָׁב are not contradictory, but are two facets of a single status. Vayikra 25:23 states, in the name of Hashem, that land in Israel cannot be sold, but only leased.

וְהָאָרֶץ לֹא תִמָּכֵר לִצְמִתֻת כִּי לִי הָאָרֶץ כִּי גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים אַתֶּם עִמָּדִי.

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers (גֵרִים) and residents (תּוֹשָׁבִים) with me.

In this context, גֵּר and תּוֹשָׁב both suggest a residence that is inherently temporary. 

Our verse in Bereishit, in which Avraham declares he is a גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב in the land of Israel, complements the above verse in Vayikra which describes a future in which the entire nation that Avraham founded is living in that same land, and are still גֵרִים וְתוֹשָׁבִים. Even given our deep and eternal connection to the land, we must remember that Hashem is the true owner, and compared to Him we will always be temporary guests.  

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