Burial of Sarah Imeinu: Test of Teshuvah? by Ezra Seplowitz (‘20)


This week’s Parashah, Parashat Chayei Sarah, portrays the famous episode of Avraham Avinu purchasing a burial plot for his wife, Sarah Imainu. After accomplishing what many consider the epoch of Avraham’s legacy at Har HaMoriah, Akeidat Yitzchak, Avraham returns home to receive the devastating news of Sarah’s passing. Despite this travesty, Avraham holds his head high and departs to find a prime burial location for his wife. He discovers Me’arat HaMachpeilah, and confronts Efron HaChiti, the cave’s owner, to agree on a price. Despite Efron’s trickery, Avraham remains collected and complies with his demands. Finally, Avraham is able to bury Sarah.

Many commentaries view Avraham’s humble conduct throughout the purchase as yet another one of his many righteous acts. The Rambam, Vilna Ga’on, Bartenura, and others, do not consider this incident to be one of Hashem’s ten tests given to Avraham, which are referenced in Pirkei Avot (5:3). Rabbeinu Yonah (ibid.), however, disagrees, and views this story as the tenth and final Nisayon that Avraham Avinu endured. He notes that Hashem had previously promised Avraham the entire land of Cana’an, yet Avraham Avinu still paid an exuberant price for this burial plot. Rabbeinu Yonah, adopting Rashi’s approach, then states that Avraham passed this test because he neither questioned nor doubted Hashem’s promise. Rabbeinu Yonah’s uncommon and unexpected approach raises several questions.

            From a logical standpoint, it makes sense for Rabbeinu Yonah to include this story as one of the ten tests. It is very similar to the Akeidah, in which Avraham Avinu is faced with a serious doubt as to whether or not the Ribono Shel Olam is keeping His promise. Hashem promised Avraham that a great nation would emerge from Yitzchak, yet he was about to kill Yitzchak on Hashem’s command. Similarly, in Parashat Chayei Sarah, Avraham is unsure as to whether or not Hashem will keep His promise of giving to him the land of Cana’an. If Rabbeinu Yonah’s explanation is so obvious, then why did other great Rishonim disagree?

            Many commentaries base their interpretation on a famous Midrash that compares the “Lech Lecha” (Bereishit 12:1) that provided Avraham with the initial instruction to leave his homeland, and the “Lech Lecha” (ibid 22:2) of Akeidat Yitzchak. The Midrash heavily implied that these were the first and last of the Nisyonot, and therefore many authorities exclude the burial of Sarah. However, I believe there is another reason why the Rabbeinu Yonah, against many other Rishonim, believes the burial of Sarah was one of the tests.

            Rabbeinu Yonah, in his famous Sefer on the process of Teshuvah, Sha’arei Teshuvah, lists twenty steps of Teshuvah that can ultimately be divided into four categories: Charatah (regret), Azivat Chet (foresaking sin), Viduy (confession) and Kabalah Al Ha’Atid (accepting to avoid the sin in the future). Perhaps, Rabbeinu Yonah sees Akeidat Yitzchak and the burial of Sarah not only as tests, but also as Teshuvah opportunities for Avraham. After all, the Midrash articulates that when Avraham made a banquet in honor of Yitzchak’s birth, he invited prominent people like Sheim, Eiver, and Avimelech, but neglected to recognize Hashem’s obvious role in the miracle. Can we assume Avraham Avinu would never do Teshuvah!? Rabbeinu Yonah does not think so; rather, utilized Akeidat Yitzchak and the burial of Sarah as opportunities for Teshuvah.

Within the Rabbeinu Yonah’s conception of Teshuvah, Avraham Avinu’s response to Hashem, “Hineini” (ibid 22:1), at the beginning of the story of the Akeidah, can be viewed as Charatah; Avraham regretted his sin and is now ready to repent. Binding Yitzchak to the Mizbe’ach represents Azivat HaCheit, and Viduy is manifested in Avraham’s humbling eulogy for Sarah to the B’nei Cheit. Finally, the purchase of the burial plot serves as Kabalah Al Ha’Atid, the final step in Rabbeinu Yonah’s Teshuvah process. This final act of recognizing Hashem, even in a time when he was seemingly hidden, did not just complete Avraham’s Teshuvah, but also the ten tests that Hashem imposed upon him.

Deep Bitachon (trust) in Hashem, combined with ultimate humility, is what made Avraham Avinu worthy of fathering the greatest nation. May we all be Zocheh not only to admire and internalize Avraham’s ability to repent with joy and humility, but also to have the strength and will to conquer any test that Hashem lays before us.

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