Eminent Domain

Rabbi Bernie Fox

A sojourner and a dweller I am with you.  Give to me a legacy of land for burial with you and I will bury my departed from before me.  (Sefer Beresheit 23:4)

I.  Avraham is a sojourner and dweller

Parshat Chayey Sarah opens with the death of Sarah.  Avraham approaches the citizens of Chevron – Hebron – and asks that they permit him to purchase a plot of land.  He explains that he will bury Sarah in this land.  Also, he describes it as a legacy.  The land will be passed on to his son and his descendants.  The community agrees and facilitates Avraham’s purchase of the Ma’arat HaMachpaylah – the Cave of the Patriarchs.  

Avraham describes himself as a ger ve’toshav – a sojourner and a dweller – in the land.  These two descriptions seem contradictory.  A sojourner’s residence in the land is temporary.  He is not settled on the land.  A dweller has a more permanent connection to the land.  He dwells upon it.  RaDaK – Rabbaynu David Kimchi – explains that Avraham acknowledged that he came to Cana’an from far away.  He entered the land as a sojourner.  He has dwelled in the land for many years and intends to remain in the land.  He is now a dweller.  The terms are both appropriate.  Avraham came to the land a sojourner and he has become a dweller [1].  

Avraham was acknowledging that he had come to the community as a foreigner.  He was asking to be treated as a dweller.  He asked them to permit him to purchase a portion of land that would be a legacy for his descendants.  He asked that they allow him to create a permanent connection with the land.  In other words, he was asking them to allow him to create a connection to the land equal to their own.  Avraham recognized that this was a substantial request.

II.  Avraham’s right to the land

Rashi notes that the midrash provides an alternative explanation of the phrase ger ve’toshav.

“If you wish I am a ger.  If not, I will be a toshav.  I will take it according to the law.  The Sacred One, blessed be He, said, ‘To your descendants, I will give this land.’” (Rashi, Sefer Beresheit 23:4)

The midrash interprets the phrase ger ve’toshav differently than RaDaK.   Ger means a dweller among other dwellers.  Avraham asked to be treated as a fellow dweller.  He wished to purchase a plot of land from one of them.  For a price, a member of the community can purchase land from another member of the community.  He asked for this opportunity. 

Avraham described himself also as a toshav.  According to the midrash, this means a master of the house [2].  If he must, he will take the land.  He is entitled to it.  Hashem told him that the land would belong to his descendants.  He had a right to the land that was destined to be his descendants [3].  

These comments – cited by Rashi – seem to contradict other of his comments.

And the servant took ten camels from the camels of his master and he went.  All the good things of his master were in his hand.  He arose and he went to Aram-NaHarayim, the city of Nachor.  (Sefer Beresheit 24:10)

III.  The land is not Avraham’s

Avraham instructs his servant Eliezer to travel to the distant land of his family and to seek a wife to Yitzchak.  Eliezer embarks with ten camels loaded with Avraham’s finest good.  The Torah describes these camels as “ten camels from the camels of his master.”  This suggests that these camels were unique.  The camels of Avraham were notably different than common camels.  How were they different?  Rashi comments:

“The camels of Avraham were noticeably distinct from other camels.  They went forth muzzled because of theft – so that they should not pasture in other’s fields.”  (Rashi, Sefer Beresheit 24:10)

Avraham did not allow his camels in others’ fields.  The fodder they would consume was not Avraham’s.  Presumably, he also did not allow his other livestock to graze on others’ lands.  Rashi more fully explains this issue in a previous comment.  

Let us first review the incident on which Rashi comments.  Avraham’s shepherds had a conflict with Lote’s shepherds.  The Torah does not explicitly identify the topic of their dispute.  Rashi explains that Lote’s shepherds allowed their flocks to graze freely.  Avraham’s shepherds rebuked them.  They had no right to graze their flocks on others’ lands.  Lote’s shepherds responded, “Hashem gave the land to Avraham.  Avraham does not have children.  Lote will be his heir.  They are grazing their master’s flocks on land that will be his. This is not theft.” [4]  Rashi explains that these shepherds were wrong.  Avraham’s descendants would possess the land.  This would occur in the future.  But Avraham did not have possession of the land. [5]

These comments more fully explain Avraham’s practice of muzzling his camels and restricting the grazing of his livestock.  The land would be possessed by his descendants.  But the land was not his.  He did not have the right to graze on another’s land.  

Now, the contradiction in Rashi’s comments is apparent.  Rashi explains that Avraham told the people of Chevron that he wanted to purchase a plot of land from them.  But if they refused to sell to him, he was prepared to take the land.  He would assert his right to the land.  Yet, Avraham restricted the grazing of his flocks to his land.  The land was destined to belong to his descendants.  It did not belong to him.  Did Avraham believe that he had a right to the land or did he believe that the land was not his?  

IV.  Patriarchs, Matriarchs and the Jewish nation

Before explaining Avraham’s behavior, it is necessary to appreciate the unique nature of the Jewish nation.  Our identity as a nation is closely associated with the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.  The are many reasons for this association.  For example, the story of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs demonstrates that our nation is the product of Divine Providence, not historical forces.  Furthermore, it demonstrates that our existence is intended to realize Hashem’s spiritual objectives in the creation of the universe.  Stripped of our founders and our mission, we become a common nation, not the Jewish nation.  

V.  Avraham prepared for future generations

Now, let us return to our question.  Did Avraham believe the land was his?  Avraham did not regard the land as his.  However, he felt he had a right to the Ma’arat HaMachpaylah.  What was different about this acquisition?  Avraham understood that he did not have a personal right to the land.  He did not seek the Ma’arat HaMachpaylah as his possession.  He was acquiring it for the future generations that would possess the land.  

His descendants – the Jewish people – are entitled to the land that Hashem promised Avraham would be theirs.  They must possess it as the home of the Jewish people.  The land of the Jewish people must include the burial places of its Patriarchs and Matriarchs.  Avraham understood that it was his responsibility to prepare the land for the Jewish people.  Only he could assure that the land of the Jewish people will include the burial places of the nation’s forebearers.  He did not have a personal right to the land.  But he was prepared to use the necessary means to prepare the land for possession by the Jewish people. 

VI.  Emulating Avraham

Chevron and the Ma’arat HaMachpaylah are the legacies of the Jewish people.  Yet, in the decades preceding 1967, Jews could not settle in Chevron.  Now, a small committed Jewish community has been reestablished in Chevron.  This community is reclaiming the legacy that Avraham created for us.  Through our support of the Chevron community, we walk in Avraham’s footsteps.  


[1] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (RaDaK), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:4

[2] See Midrash Rabbah, Sefer Beresheit 58:6. “Toshav” is interpreted as “mari baisa,” master of the house.

[3] It is unlikely that the midrash is suggesting that Avraham told the people of Chevron that he was prepared to take land if they refused him. Avraham would not have threatened the people from whom he wished to purchase land. Instead, the midrash likely is suggesting that Avraham’s wording describes his inner thoughts.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 13:7.

[5] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 13:7