This week’s Torah portion is Chayei Sarah, in which we read how, after the death of his beloved wife, Sarah, Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpelah in Kiryat Arba (Hebron) from Ephron, the son of Zohar, to serve as a burial plot. Ephron politely offered it to Abraham for free (not intending to be taken literally, of course) but Abraham, in order to establish an inalienable right of possession, insisted on paying the full price of the cave and of the field in which it was situated. Four hundred silver shekels was the asking price, which Abraham paid in full – no small sum in those days when the contemporary Code of Hammurabi fixed the annual wages of a working man at six or eight shekels. How right he was to do so! And how ironic that in contemporary Israel, the government has decided to expel Jewish settlers who bought a house in Hebron (for a grossly inflated sum, no doubt), in a perfectly legal transaction. A transaction documented not only on paper but also on film, such a precaution being necessary due to the Palestinian practice of selling land to Jews and then denying it – possibly because Palestinian "law" makes selling land to Jews a capital offence. Can you imagine the chorus of condemnation from the United Nations, the European Community and everybody else (not least, our own Loony Left) if Israeli law made it illegal (let alone a capital offence) to sell land to Arabs?
The Cave of Machpelah is venerated by the Arabs, rightly so, for they claim descent from Ishmael, Abraham’s son by his concubine, Hagar. For centuries, while the Holy Land was under Muslim rule, only Muslims were permitted to enter the Tomb of the Patriarchs. Jews were only permitted to go as far as the seventh step leading up to the huge building, a prohibition continued by the British, during the Mandate. (The British also forbade the blowing of the Shofar at the Western Wall on Rosh Hashana, so as not to offend Muslim sensibilities. Does all this sound familiar?) Yet Ishmael was not buried in the Cave of Machpelah with his father. It was Isaac, Sarah’s son, who was laid to rest there in the fullness of the years and his wife, Rebecca, and after that, Jacob and his wife Leah. Only Jacob’s second (and most beloved) wife, Rachel, was buried by the wayside, just outside Bethlehem – and even that, the Muslims have the temerity to claim as a Muslim holy place.
The Bible also tells us, however, that when Abraham died, his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the Cave of Machpelah – together. The Midrash interprets this as meaning that at the graveside of their father, the half-brothers were reconciled. Would that it were so!