Longing for Home

Rabbi Jason Bonder

By Rabbi Jason Bonder

Parshat Chayei Sarah

At the very beginning of this week’s portion, Sarah dies. In search of a burial place for her, Abraham spoke with the Hittites, among them Ephron the Hittite, who owned the Cave of Machpelah.

When Abraham spoke with the Hittites, he did not begin by telling them that he was brokenhearted. Nor did Abraham tell them about his wife and the life that she lived. Rather, Abraham opened by telling the Hittites that he was not one of them. Abraham made it clear that he was different — and from a different place. He said, “I am a resident alien among you.” (Genesis 23:5)

Just a bit later in this portion, it came time for Abraham to find his son, Isaac, a wife. At first, Abraham did not seem immediately concerned about finding Isaac the perfect match. Nor did he seem terribly concerned about many of the other typical characteristics in finding a wife for his son. Rather, in Abraham’s mind, the key priority over all the rest was the hometown of Isaac’s future bride.

Abraham made his servant swear that he would not find a Canaanite woman for Isaac. Rather, he would go back to the land of Abraham’s birth to find Isaac a wife. Abraham said, “And I will make you swear by God, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I dwell but will go to the land of my birth and get a wife for Isaac.” (Genesis 24:3-4)

Abraham’s announcement of his “resident alien” status and his insistence on finding Isaac’s wife from “the old country” remind me that everything in life comes with a price tag. Abraham was given the opportunity of a lifetime. He was blessed to hear God’s call to “go forth.” He was blessed to be the father of a multitude of nations. He was blessed that his family followed him on his journey. He was literally blessed by God.

And yet, we see in this week’s portion that heeding God’s call took a toll on Abraham. It seems that Abraham was homesick all of his life. In his advanced years, no matter what the folks around him said, Abraham did not feel at home. The Hittites said to Abraham, “Hear us my lord.”

“You are the elect of God among us …” (Genesis 23:5) But Abraham didn’t agree. He insisted on paying for the Cave of Machpelah. Furthermore, it seems like there were plenty of Canaanite women who would have gladly married Isaac. Otherwise, why would Abraham have had to emphatically direct his servant to avoid bringing home a Canaanite woman for Isaac? But he did it because the Canaanites were not the right fit for Isaac, in Abraham’s eyes.

Abraham nobly followed God toward a place that God would show him. But getting to that land, and staying there, meant feeling like an outsider for the rest of his life. This is the price that many leaders pay in pursuit of their dreams. Chasing a goal often means following a path with no clear destination in sight. But they do it because they feel called to do the work just as Abraham was called to journey toward the Promised Land.

Toward the end of this portion, Abraham’s death is described in the following way, “And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented, and he was gathered to his kin.” Had Abraham stayed in his hometown of Haran, he may have grown old, but I don’t think that he would have been contented.

I believe it was his fulfillment of God’s call that enabled him to feel contented upon his death. Had Abraham stayed in Haran, he would have spent his entire life with his kin, but he would not have fulfilled his destiny. By always holding onto his role as an outsider, perhaps Abraham allowed himself to feel connected to his ancestors even though he was physically separated from them.

Perhaps Abraham not only founded Judaism by the sound of God’s voice calling him, but also by the urge to make those from his hometown proud.

Rabbi Jason Bonder is the associate rabbi of Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


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