Friday, November 21, 2008

Yisrael asks a question; how about you? (Derashah Chayyei Sarah 5769)

A king summoned his noblemen, demanding tribute. The aristocrats met in secret and decided that they would refuse at first, to test the king’s resolve.

When they arrived and the king made his demands, they started to refuse, as planned. Unfortunately, they had underestimated the king’s belligerence; he ordered his guards to execute them on the spot. Two of them were killed before the rest threw themselves at his feet and pledged to pay.

The remaining nobles explained that the executed ones had also meant to pay, and their refusal had just been a bargaining tactic. The king regretted the loss of his funds - which goes to show you, “Don't hatchet your counts before they chicken.”

Avraham, too, is in a bargaining situation as our parshah begins, when he attempts to purchase a burial plot for Sarah - but rather than bargain down, Avraham insists on bargaining up.

The Chiti tribe, dwellers of the area, tell Avraham to take the land for free - and Avraham says, “No, free is no good - I’ll pay full price.”

Efron, owner of the plot, refuses Avraham’s offer. “Free, it has to be free, I won’t take a dime.”
Avraham thinks it over and declines, “No, I can’t do that. I’ll pay full price.”

And so Efron says, “Well, you drive a hard bargain - 400 silver coins, then.” And Avraham gladly pays it.

According to one midrash, Avraham refuses to take free land because he is a man of the world: He knows his neighbors and he understands the way the game is played.

Avraham knows very well what will happen the next day, after he has buried Sarah: Someone is going to complain that the land doesn’t belong to Avraham, that he’s stolen it from them. Then, with Sarah already interred, Avraham will have to pay whatever they demand! So Avraham pre-emptively pays today’s full price.

Contrast Avraham’s savvy with the willful naivete implicit in his son Yitzchak's actions. In next week’s parshah, Avimelech, the Philistine king, guarantees the safety of Yitzchak and his wife, Rivkah. He declares, “If anyone so much as touches this man and his wife, they will be put to death.”

Unlike his father, Yitzchak has never spent the time learning about his neighbors, and so he trusts them and he invests in a major ranching operation. His trust turns out to be misplaced; the Philistines fill in his wells, and tell him to move along.

Yitzchak moves down the road and again sets up shop and digs more wells - only to have the local shepherds co-opt his new wells for themselves, too.

Avraham and Yitzchak take fundamentally different positions regarding their neighbors - Avraham learns their ways, understands them and plays their game, but Yitzchak refrains from playing that game; he doesn’t want to know.

These two paths point to two different ways a Jew can interact with the world around him: Avraham promotes interaction, and Yitzchak remains to himself.

This is not a choice between a right way and a wrong way - Avraham and Yitzchak present two different Jewish orientations, one which views Jewish life as something to be shared through interaction with the greater world and the other which sees its entire existence and validation within the four amot of Torah itself. The one, Avraham, devotes his energies to attracting people to Judaism, whether in Charan or in Chevron. The other, Yitzchak, refuses to get involved.

These two approaches persist in Jewish history. Although at times, in certain societies, one view has gained primacy over the other, each has always had its adherents and each has taken a turn as the dominant Jewish approach.

In the days of the mishnah, under Roman tyranny, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael generally adopted a Yitzchak orientation, prohibiting studying secular philosophy and wearing secular garb, interacting with Roman society only as necessary for political survival. This is the generation in which Rabbi Akiva banned the study of ספרי מינים, the work of heretics - even as other sages went to debate philosophy with Romans at places like בי אבידן.

In 12th century Egypt the Rambam pushed the other way, promoting the ideas of Aristotle within the Torah’s philosophy, and encouraging study of the sciences for people who had already consumed the canon of Torah. But, on the other hand, there were those who pushed back and even wished to ban the Rambam’s works for their non-Jewish content.

Fast-forward to the 18th century and the Vilna Gaon in Lithuania takes the Yitzchak view, criticizing the Rambam’s absorption in Aristotelian thought. Rav Boruch Ber took the same tack a century later, explicitly prohibiting attending college. But the Avraham view persisted in the work of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in Germany and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in America, as they argued for an understanding of the broader world and a knowledgeable engagement with that broader landscape.

Last week, we hosted a speaker who spoke engagingly, from an academic’s perspective, about the historic evolution of the books we know as Siddur, Sefer Torah and Gemara.

Certainly, a secular academic approach varies, at times, from the approach of a religious scholar; we each bring our own prejudices to the table. But from the perspective of the Avraham vs. Yitzchak debate, a religious Jew has two choices regarding such discussions: We may choose the method of Avraham, engage it and debate it and wrestle with it. Or we may choose the method of Yitzchak, and leave the academics to their own realm. Each approach has a legitimate Jewish pedigree.

I opted to bring in this speaker and have that conversation because, by and large, American Jewry, and certainly Allentonian Jewry, has already opted for an Avraham approach just as strongly as Rabbi Akiva’s Jewry opted for a Yitzchak approach. We read newspapers, we surf the Net, we debate American politics and watch football and basketball and baseball and hockey. This is an approach of openness to the world around us - and if we are going to follow that path, then we had best do so honestly, with a full awareness of what that world has to say about our Torah.

This week, Kiddush is sponsored, in part, in honor of Yisrael Wiener’s new book, “Yisrael Asks a Question.”

I had a chance to look at Yisrael’s book in shul two weeks ago, and then I read samples from it on-line at It’s a great read, presenting questions like, “Mommy, do Native Americans have museums about us?” and “Mommy, did we see that movie in America or in New York?”

There’s a lot we could say about this book, and I’d encourage everyone to take the opportunity to look at it, out in the lobby, after davening. But in the context of our discussion this morning: The Avraham approach mandates that we inquire, that we ask Questions.

Questions are the way we engage the world, the way we express doubt or discomfort or interest. If we choose to live the model of Avraham, if we believe that we are to engage the world, to be involved with the world, then we each need to write a book of our own - “Mordechai asks a question,” “Amram asks a question,” “Mike asks a question.” To hear the ideas of an academic, of the broader world, not necessarily to accept them but to take Avraham’s approach of questioning them and understanding them, and so grow into a greater, deeper, stronger engagement with the world around us.

Thank you, Yisrael, for your book. Yisrael has asked a question; now, it is our turn.

1. I haven't posted derashot in a while because at this time of year I teach classes after kiddush on Shabbat instead of before minchah, and I have been using the class as the derashah as well.

2. Yisrael Wiener is a second grader at the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley.

3. Sorry for the pun at the start, but I wanted a joke about bargaining. It comes from this site; you can blame them.

4. That midrash on Avraham's purchase is the classic one about our ancestors purchasing three sites in Israel specifially to avoid dispute (lot of good that did us...) - it's found in Bereishit Rabbah 79:7.

5. It seems to me that my explanation of Avraham's refusal to take the land for free also works to explain ואל תאמר אני העשרתי את אברהם, Avraham's refusal to take the spoils of war.

6. This derashah does tie into the approach of our ancestors to civic involvement, as well; see my derashah here. We could also extend the discussion to Yaakov, who takes on the traits of those around him when masking himself as Esav and Lavan, and to Yosef, who learns the ways of the others but triumphs as a נער עברי, specifically.


  1. "400 shekel kesef over lasocher" today equals $17 million (as per chief rabbi hertz) using wage equivalents; using real estate equivalents, it would be much more!

  2. Interestingly enough, in the very parsha that Avraham "bargains up", Rashi (Breishit 24:55) says that people never do that. (That's how we know that "yamim" has to be a year rather than just a few days...)

  3. FA-
    I'd be curious to see the math on either of those!

    Mrs. S-
    Thanks for commenting. Of course, there Rashi's note is regarding a demand from the other side, not a statement of what one will personally pay.