Possession: A Romance (Hayey Sarah)

In the immediate aftermath of Sarah’s death, Abraham is consumed by the task of purchasing a plot of land in Canaan in which to bury his wife. At first the Hittim offer the land for free, and indeed we might think that Abraham would take them up on the offer – after all, God has just promised all the land of Canaan for him and his descendants. But in spite of the divine promise, Abraham insists on a financial deal that is fair and square, and he buys the land at full price for 400 shekels. This seems at first glance to be merely a dry account of an economic transaction, but when we dig deeper and look beneath the surface—this is, after all a story about burial—we see that for the rabbis of the Talmud, the burial of Sarah became the basis for several foundational discussions about marriage, ownership, and what it means for our love to outlive us.

On the first page of Masechet Kiddushin, the tractate of the Talmud that deals with betrothal, the rabbis draw explicitly on the story of Sarah’s burial to derive the law that a man may betroth a woman in any one of three ways – with money, with a document, or by means of sexual intercourse. The rabbis explain that the way we know that a woman may be betrothed by means of money is because of the story of Abraham’s burial of Sarah in our parsha. Just as the Torah uses the term “take” (kicha) to describe how a man marries a woman (“When a man takes a wife and possesses her,” Deuteronomy 24:1), so too does the Torah use this term to describe Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot (“Let me pay the price of the land, take it from me,” Gen. 23:13). And since we know that Abraham purchased the land with money, the rabbis conclude, we also know that a woman may be betrothed by means of money.

The notion of a woman being acquired by money—as if the woman is an object that can be owned—is antithetical if not outrageous to our modern sensibilities, especially since the transaction must always be the husband’s initiative. But as the analogy to Abraham’s purchase of a burial plot suggests, a woman is actually not like a commodity that can be transferred freely from one person to another, but rather like land, which is something else entirely. Throughout the Talmud the rabbis distinguish between moveable property (m’taltelin) and land (karka). Moveable property like a refrigerator or a bicycle can be owned fully. But as we know from the laws of the sabbatical year (Leviticus 25:23), the only one who truly owns the land is God; we humans are merely temporary custodians put on this earth to work it and to safeguard it. Land may belong to someone, just as one spouse may belong to another in marriage; but land, like a person, can never be truly owned.

And while the analogy between betrothal and burial may still seem unromantic, we must remember that it is not just any land that Abraham is buying – it is land in Canaan, the beloved homeland of the Jewish people, and the land that God has promised him. Abraham’s love for Sarah thus becomes a metaphor for the Jewish people’s love for the land of Israel. Our parsha suggests that theirs was quite a fierce love; when Sarah dies, Abraham weeps profoundly over her loss: “Sarah’s lifetime came to one hundred and twenty-seven years…and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her” (23:1-2). Regardless of how complex their marriage may have been—there was tension over the angels’ visit, tension over Hagar and Ishmael, and at least according to the midrash, tension over the Akedah—Abraham was devastated by Sarah’s death.

The Talmud in Bava Batra (58a) tells a story about a sage named Rabbi B’na’a whose job it was to mark burial sites so that people would not inadvertently step over them and contract impurity. When he came to the cave where Abraham and Sarah were buried, he discovered that Abraham was lying between Sarah’s arms, and she was caressing his head. It is a testament to the power of love to outlast even death, as articulated so beautifully in the Song of Songs (8:6): “For love is as fierce as death.” On account the force of his love for this woman to whom he promised himself in marriage, Abraham was determined to bury Sarah in the land promised to him by God. His “taking” of this land, like the “taking” of a woman in marriage, is not merely an economic transaction, but a model of what it means to be possessed by a love we can never truly own.

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