BY RABBI PETER BERG / AJT //
This week’s portion, Chaye Sarah, details the transition between the founding generation and the continuing generation.
Sarah dies, and Rebecca is chosen; Abraham dies, and G-d continues to accompany Isaac. The Torah hints that Isaac and Rebecca are G-d’s continuation of the previous generation.
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In places in which there is a transition from one generation to another, we expect to hear something essential which surfaces during the shift of generations. That is the time during which the person of the departing generation takes a spiritual inventory, and at the same time, the generation about to take over from the previous one expects to hear a will of some kind, a blessing for the road.
In Chaye Sarah, Abraham leaves no explicit will to his son. Yet, there is a certain value which is very much emphasized in this portion: the challenge of Abraham’s family completely assimilating into the surrounding nations.
This becomes apparent through the entire portion, but especially in the description of Abraham looking for a proper burial for Sarah.
Commentators ask: “Why does the Torah go to such great length about the dialogue between Abraham and the people of Heth?” We did not hear the same type of discussion when Jacob buried Rachel on the way to Efrata; or when Jacob bought some land from the sons of Chamor near Schechem.
Apparently, something of principle comes up in the discussions between Abraham and the people of Heth. At first, the Hittites respond happily to Abraham’s request, and they say to him: “Listen to us, Sir. You are a prince of G-d in our midst. Take our best burial site and bury your dead. No one among us will deny you his burial site to bury your dead” (Genesis 23:6).
How remarkable that the Hittites offer a portion of their own graves! Grave sites in the ancient world were all family sites. The Hittites are literally inviting Abraham to be a part of their family circle.
Yet, Abraham instinctively understands that, in doing so, he would be developing a partnership between himself and the inhabitants of the land. Thus, he insists on purchasing a burial plot that can be transferred to his possession legally.
Perhaps, that is why the Torah goes to such trouble to present us with the complicated and seemingly unnecessary dialogue between Abraham and the Hittites. We learn through this dialogue that there is always a healthy tension between living in the greater community and completely assimilating into a foreign environment and becoming a part of it.
This tension has been an integral part of the American Jewish experience.
In the 1930s, Marcus Lee Hansen identified the “Three Generation Hypothesis” – which is a claim about how immigrants and their children and grandchildren react to the process of becoming American.
His basic premise is that immigrants need to maintain themselves in their new country; their children flee from it, but what the children flee from, the grandchildren find. In other words, the third generation did not speak the original language and had little sense of what their grandparents experienced. Assimilation has always been a threat to Jews, since a welcoming environment did not present Jews with obvious reasons to remain in the fold.
The challenge of assimilation has been at the forefront, again, in recent days, as a result of the study on Jewish identity by the Pew Research Center. The Pew study is confusing, as it mixes attitudes and practices, but it does tell us that we are swimming in a sea of assimilation.
The ultimate question, raised first by Abraham, has now become the quintessential Jewish question over the years: How do we continue to live permanently both within the mainstream of American life and within a Jewish community of our own?
About the writer
Rabbi Peter Berg is the Senior Rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta.