Don’t Marry a Shicksa – Parashat Chayei Sara פרשת חיי שרה
Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
The previous section, Vayeira, focused on the immigration experience. This section focuses on integration, more accurately, the refusal to integrate and the insistence on being a nation unto itself, a nation among other nations. This section links three stories: 1) the death of Sarah and the negotiations for her burial plot (chapter 23); 2) Abraham sending his servant back to the place of his birth to find a wife for his son Isaac, the identification of Rebekah and the return to Isaac with Rebekah; (chapter 24); and 3) the juxtaposition of Abraham taking a third woman as his wife, Keturah, her children, the death of Abraham and, most importantly, his leaving the bulk of his wealth to Isaac and not to Ishmael, the son of Hagar, or the sons of Keturah.
Let me begin with the previous Parashat, Vayeira, or at least the theme of immigration in that section. I wrote about it last Friday morning, but was interrupted with busy-ness and did not finish. (Yesterday, my failure to write a blog and fulfill my promise was a result of a totally unexpected emergency, oral surgery in which two of my implants were removed and I received a bone graft and eleven stitches.) I will deal with the theme of immigration first, but not with the full previous parashat.
For a religion that supposedly so reveres its past, that centres its services around the Torah and the study of Talmud, Judaism has a peculiar founding father, Abraham. He was an archetypal immigrant who set out into the world to forge a different path for his family and his children. He obviously rejected ancestor worship and the belief that the greatest wisdom had already been revealed. He so clearly rejected the premise that the past was superior to the future. Instead, he set out on a journey to the West in which neither the path nor the destiny were known in advance.
What forces impelled him to move – famine, economic collapse, civil war, conquest? None of these appear to have been factors. What vision impelled him to leave his immediate family? It did not seem to be riches, though rich he would become. It did not seem to be the vision of the explorer intent on discovering “undiscovered” lands. There was no impulse to prove the earth was round or that the torrid parts of the planet supposedly at the ends of the earth were actually habitable. Nor did his travel seem to be impelled by new transportation technologies – railroads or automobiles – since he still went forth in the traditional way of the nomad shepherd with his camels, walking and following his herds. For such a conservative, he was a very radical individual, though not radical enough to claim that the text in which he would be inscribed was written as a result of the dictation of a divine being. But there is a hint that Abraham could read and write for he entered into contracts.
We in the twenty-first century (at least, but not only, in the Reform movement in Judaism) read our sacred text, which provides the geography of our imagination and the story of the founding fathers, as a literary and not a divine document. But the Torah remains sacred. The preservation of the stories of the past, not just as oral memory, but as an inscribed written body of literature, was revered. But not as a product of the printing press – though copies were available this way – but as hand written scrolls of old. What has this to do with immigration?
Abraham did not leave his extended family in Mesopotamia to make a life better for himself – though he would do that – but to be the founder of nations. He was destined to have children as numerous as the stars in the heaven and as the dust on the earth. And he could not do that unless he had children. But Sarah was barren. Did Abraham have a low sperm count? Did Sarai have a problem with ovulation? The latter is the likely possibility since Hagar had Ishmael and his third wife, Keturah, had many children. So why will the “chosen” bloodline run through Isaac? If you wanted to guarantee that the Israelites would become as numerous as the stars, would you not choose a woman who would show a capacity to bear many children? But Abraham was promised that he would be a father of many nations, not just one. It seems there was no guarantee or even likelihood that the dominant one in terms of numbers would be the Israelites.
People immigrate, not for themselves, but for their children. We just finished an election where immigrants and refugees were a central theme of the campaign. Donald Trump railed against Mexican illegal immigrants and refugees from the Middle East being suspect as terrorists. As well, Donald Trump put down women and people with disabilities. He displayed the fine art of an alpha male as a menace to women. Donald Trump was the first presidential candidate since WWII to run on a platform to restrict immigration.
Further, he outperformed among voters who were concerned with these themes, along with related considerations, such as fears of terrorism and opposition to free trade. In the primary, voters, concerned about immigration and related cultural concerns were the core of his support. In Florida, for example, voters who cared about immigration outscored others by 38 points. In the general election, The Donald outperformed among white voters with no college degree. A huge turnout of this section of the population turned out to vote and won him the presidency in the rural and working-class areas of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, unless a recount reveals that these victories were offset by other votes.
Let us look at Abraham as an immigrant in a foreign land as perceived through his experience. Did he miss home? Did he miss his family? Did he fit in?
A week ago, Thursday, in the evening, we watched an excellent French comedy, The African Doctor. It was based on a true story of a Congolese man from Kinshasa trained in French medicine who takes his family to become the doctor of a small French village somewhere north of Paris. It is a hilarious comedy in which the new arrivals are initially ostracized, but eventually become heroes in this small town. It is a story about “fitting in” and the difficulties in retaining an inherited identity in a strange land.
If you are a Platonist or a neo-Platonist (Chabadniks for example), death is the ultimate immigration experience, for the migration of the soul is so much more important, and more difficult than leaving the habits of feeding and caring for the body behind. But if the experience of life and death on this earth is the primary concern, then the major issue about the life of the soul will be narrated through the life and death of the body and how that is handled. Caring for the dead body is as important as caring for the living. In terms of the latter position, what better way to illustrate the split in adaptation than with a doctor responsible for caring for the living bodies of native French women and men. Even as he cares for bodies, in his experience, it is his soul and that of the French small town that are at stake, even if cast within the construct of a hilarious French farce.
One message of the movie was that earthly migration is not Platonic. There is no preservation of the soul separate from the body. However, one does NOT forget one’s inherited physical life – food, singing, soccer. It is the opposite message of Platonism – we should not forget who we are as bodies, including being black or white, including whether we eat pickled herring or scones and cream when we migrate. We should and cannot leave our bodies behind, but must take our bodies with us when we migrate. And the body politic into which we move must adapt as well as accommodate us as we as immigrants adapt. The ideal migration is not a Platonic migration that separates body and soul, but one that integrates body and soul on both sides of the earthly divide, the immigrant and the native.
So it is not true that you must abandon your past to move into the future. The “old country” comes with you when you enter the new. Hineini –“Here am I” and not “I am here” – has to be the mantra. For the ‘I’ is a becoming, not an essence who is present. The emphasis is on the here and now without forgetting what the I had become and what the I wants to be.
The parashat on Sara begins with her burial, more accurately, with the purchase of her grave. Sarah is buried among strangers in a plot purchased from the Hittites among whom Abraham lived. Their leaders offered a plot to Abraham as a gift. Abraham refused the gift. He insisted on paying and agreeing in a contract to buy the land in Kiryat Arba, now Hebron. When Abraham initially proposed to pay for the burial site, the Hittite leaders replied: “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.” (23:6) This was an act of great generosity. But Abraham turned down the gift. “Let him (Ephron) sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, which is at the edge of his land. Let him sell it to me, at the full price, for a burial site in your midst.” (23:9)
Ephron offered the site a second time. Abraham reiterates a second time: “Let me pay the price of the land; accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” (23:13) Ephron finally concedes: “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver—what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.” (23:15) Ephron must have been very exasperated and irritated by this point. What chutzpah of this stranger among us to refuse a gift when it is offered! Further, Abraham’s response was really an insult to the traditions of hospitality of the resident population among whom Abraham lived as a resident alien. Nevertheless, Ephron compromises and agrees to Abraham’s deal – 400 shekels, the market price for the land on which the burial cave is located.
So the story of Sarah’s death becomes, not a tale of weeping at the loss of the companion of his life, though there is a very brief mention of mourning, but about a contention between the peoples among whom Abraham had settled, their generosity of spirit and their act of gift-giving within a shame culture. Abraham insists on holding his own, on paying for the land and obtaining a deed of ownership. Abraham insists on contract law and the principle of guilt when one fails to uphold a contract rather than a reliance on shame characteristic of a culture of generosity.
Abraham adopts from the local population the principle of the spirit of generosity to strangers and incorporates that principle as a mainstay of his religion. At the same time, Abraham insisted on holding onto what would become a characteristic of one nation he was founding, the principle of the social contract and of guilt versus the practice of gift giving and of shame used to bind parties. It is a tale of accommodation and integration of strangers rather than of assimilation.
In that spirit, Abraham will not permit his son Isaac to marry “out”. He insists on sending his servant back to the “home” country to find a bride from his own tribe. And the servant locates a woman of high spirits and generosity, a risk taker willing to leave her family behind and join Isaac whom she had never met and knows virtually nothing about, to participate in this epic journey into the future and in a strange land.
This is a story of all immigrants. Immigration entails leaving one’s homeland behind and coming to a new land. It may even mean carrying into this new land a new spirit and a different set of values, such as that of legal contracts and a guilt culture rather than one of generosity, of gift giving in a shame culture. Abraham and the Israelites will accept the tradition of their hosts of generosity and welcoming the stranger as a central imperative. But they will also insist on founding a nation on the principle of a social contract in which legal contacts are the backbone of the economy.
All immigrants wrestle with the same dilemma – how to maintain one’s family ties and one’s traditions and how to live in the new world, how to adapt but not simply assimilate, and how to teach by example standards which the local population may choose to adopt as well. On the one hand, kith and kin, a kindred spirit and preserving one’s identity as an Iranian or Chinese, as an Indian or a Jamaican, are important to all immigrant groups to different degrees. But so too is adaptation. What values are crucial that you should not surrender to the dominant values of the host population? What values of the host should you integrate into your own culture? The dialectic of accommodation is never easy. But to be successful, a spirit of negotiation, of give and take, is crucial.
What about the third section of the parashat which tells about all of Abraham’s other children, to whom he was very generous in getting them established. However, in his will, he made Isaac his sole heir, Isaac whom he insisted marry from within his clan? And that becomes a crux of passing on one’s heritage. For if the males – and this is changing as females more frequently do so as well – go forth out into the world and marry “out” of the clan, not only does this weaken the family as the core of the body politic of a society for preserving a collective memory and a tradition of values and the means to practice them. It also leaves behind a surfeit of women of one’s own clan, women who will more likely remain barren through no bodily incapacity, though artificial insemination and surrogate fathers may help. A result: the numbers in the clan with ties and commitments to preserving those traditions both weaken and the numbers decline at one and the same time.
This is the dilemma not only of Jews but of all ethnic groups. One way of responding is turning inward, insisting on only marrying in and creating and preserving practices that clearly set one’s group apart. Segments of Jews, Hutterites and Mennonites, all adopt such a strategy. Other Jews turn their backs on all of that. They no longer wish to see the back of God and retain the collective memory of the past. They leave the tribe to become global citizens. Still others try to stand astride both worlds, the world of the new while respecting and preserving the old. They can meet the challenge by avoiding the Scylla of insisting only on inwardness or the Charybdis of opting for marching outward. Or they can try to integrate the outer into the inner by welcoming the stranger into the covenant of Israel while adapting into the dominant nation in which they find themselves.
After all, one of the greatest heroines of Jewish history, if not the greatest exemplar, was not a Jew-by-birth but a convert. Each one has a choice. Each family has to decide how and to what extent it will preserve its heritage. And the practices of burial of the dead, of marriage and of having children will be at the core in making such decisions.