Haye Sarah 5776: At Home and on the Road
“Forever is composed of nows.” ― Emily Dickinson
On a mission to acquire a burial plot for his wife Sarah, Abraham strikes a deal with Ephron the Hitite and makes his first purchase of land in Canaan, later to become Erets Yisrael.
To open his negotiation he tells Ephron that he is a ger vetoashab – sojourner and citizen among Ephron and his people. It is a peculiar description, one is either a sojourner or a citizen. However, there was thought behind Abraham’s self-description that drew from his philosophy of life which continues as an ideal for his descendants.
The term is later used by King David and by G-d to refer to the Jewish people. Each time the term is used it is in reference to the nature of the people’s connection to the land. Abraham expresses himself this way at the moment he establishes some permanence in the land by purchasing the cave of Makhpela; until then he had lived in a tent as a wanderer.
God refers to the entire nation of Israel as sojourners and citizens when He presents the terms for acquiring land in Israel which is not ancestrally owned.
The land is not to be sold in perpetuity…for you are sojourners and citizens with me….(Lev., 25:23)
King David uses the term in his prayer to G-d at the groundbreaking ceremony of the Bet haMikdash in Jerusalem which was the climax of the nation’s settling in the land.
For we are sojourners before You and citizens like all of our forebears, our days are like shadows upon the earth…(I Chron., 29:15)
To be both a sojourner and a citizen was the paradigm of Abraham’s life and actions and it is through this perspective that Abraham allows himself to make his first purchase of land.
He associated with being a sojourner because he was hesitant to settle anywhere, both physically or mentally; he felt that to be truly connected to G-d meant to keep assumptions about reality to a minimum and to remain open to the novel discoveries one might find in G-d’s world. However, he also related to being a citizen since he believed that lives are formed and enriched through complete investment in a particular place and time.
The legacy of Abraham has us living in a perpetual state of tension between journey and arrival. We strive as travellers to always be prepared to move forward and develop with the world as it unfolds. Yet, we do not suffice with relating to the world superficially as passersby, we invest fully and identify with each point of the journey with commitment and belonging.
Ultimately, G-d borrows this term from Abraham and applies it to the entire nation. The term ‘sojourners and citizens’ has come to profoundly define the Jewish people. We live and survive in the balance between moving and settling. The ‘wandering Jew’ is not one who simply roams from region to region but one who arrives, builds, supports and identifies with the environment in which he lives. And still, the wandering Jew is one who is always questioning, ready to move places as well as ideas, in his commitment to the ultimate voyage of life.
We can approach life this way both as a nation and as individuals. The ethos established by our patriarch Abraham has charged his progeny to live fully in each moment but never at the expense of continuing the grand journey through history. Being both sojourners and citizens — gerim vetoshabim — has played a great role in connecting the descendants of Abraham to eternity.