By Hazzan Jenna Greenberg.
Yossi Klein Halevi stated the following this past Monday evening at Beth El: “Israel is the State of all Jews, and the State of all of its citizens.” Its first function is to be a home for all Jews world-wide, both in Israel and throughout the Diaspora. Similarly, Israel is a country for all of its residents, whether they are in the Jewish majority, or in the sizable non-Jewish minority.
The second part of his statement also connects with this week’s Torah portion, Hayyei Sarah. Following Sarah’s death, Avraham needed to make burial arrangements for his beloved wife: “Then Avraham rose from beside his dead, and spoke to the Hittites, saying: ‘I am a resident alien (ger v’toshav) among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.’”(23:4) Avraham purchases Ma’arat Ha-Makhpelah as a burial place for Sarah in Hevron for 400 shekels, the first parcel of real estate acquired by our founding father in the promised land.
Avraham mentioned his status as ger v’toshav because a resident alien was unable to purchase real estate. Midrashic commentary continues: Avraham is uncertain whether his neighbors accept him as a fellow resident or Hayyei Sarah him as an alien in their midst. The Hittite’s answer surprises him: “Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.” (23:5-6) Abraham is surprised because the Hittites have gone beyond acceptance and toleration. They truly admire him for the quality of his faith.
This opening section of Hayyei Sarah is a paragon for how to respect our neighbors, regardless of our differences. The latter half of Halevi’s statement, “Israel is the State of all its citizens,” is inverted at this biblical moment. Avraham, as the first Jew, is clearly in the minority. But regardless, the Hittites welcome him with equal opportunity for burying his beloved wife, Sarah.
Despite being the majority in Israel, Jews are the minority in the Diaspora. Throughout Jewish history, Jews outside of Israel have lived as “ger v’toshav,” resident aliens in the midst of other nations.
Avraham was welcomed as an equal by his Hittite neighbors with kindness. Whether we dwell in the Diaspora or in Israel, we recall our roots with this first biblical moment of being strangers in a strange land.
Just as Avraham greeted some unexpected guests with extraordinary hospitality in last week’s parasha, Vayera, so too, he was warmly welcomed by his neighbors to enjoy the rights of full citizenship.
It is a two-way street. Let us all consider both perspectives in our interactions with our own neighbors. Just as Avraham and the Hittites modeled what it means to be a good neighbor, to be hospitable, may we always strive to be respectful neighbors amongst those with whom we dwell.