In this week’s Parashah, Parashat Chayei Sarah, Avraham tries to find a burial place for his wife in the land of the Bnei Cheit. When Avraham introduces himself to the Bnei Cheit, he says, “Geir VeToshav Anochi Imachem,” “I am a foreigner and a resident among you” (BeReishit 23:4). The phrase, “Geir VeToshav” raises the following question; what is Avraham saying about himself in relation to the Bnei Cheit?
Seforno answers that Avraham was explaining his reasoning to the Bnei Cheit Avraham was saying that because he was from a foreign land, he didn’t have a burial place for his family in the area. However, Avraham had already lived there for a long time and planned to stay, so he needed a burial plot for his family. Therefore, Avraham was explaining why he doesn’t have a burial place for Sarah and why he needs one, and said Geir VeToshav to explain his reason for not having a grave.
A second approach to this issue is that of the Midrash Agudah as cited by Rashi. The Midrash says that when Avraham said Geir VeToshav, he was actually rhetorically asking the Bnei Cheit if they wanted him to be a Geir or a Toshav. After this question, Avraham asserted that whether he may be a Geir or Toshav, he still demands a grave for Sarah, no matter how the Bnei Cheit choose to classify him.
I suggest a third answer. Avraham was a Geir and a Toshav, but not according to Seforno’s interpretation. Avraham was a Toshav in that he lived among the Bnei Cheit. He lived in a similar manner as they did, raising cattle and doing business in as they would. However, at the same time, he also kept his distance. Avraham was a foreigner religiously, and did not participate in the pagan rituals of the Bnei Cheit. As such, Avraham was both a Toshav and a Geir.
This should serve as a message for us, as American Jews. While we are Toshav in the world and are involved in it economically and socially, we must always maintain our Geirut and our religious distance from Goyim so that we can continue to maintain our Jewish identity. Avraham, the first Jew, says this to the Bnei Cheit in order to teach us that message: like Avraham, we must be both Geirim and Toshavim in the world. Editor’s Note: Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik articulates this idea in his classic essay “Confrontation” (Tradition 1964).