In this week’s Parashah, Avraham Avinu purchases the burial ground known as Me’arat HaMachpeilah for his wife Sarah. To purchase the cave, Avraham must negotiate with the native Cana’anite owner, Efron. One of the most interesting portions of the negotiation is the opening line of Avraham’s negotiation with Efron, “Geir VeToshav Anochi Imachem.” (Genesis 23:4).
The literal translation of the Pasuk is “I am a resident and stranger, Geir VeToshav amongst you.” But what exactly is a Geir VeToshav, a resident and stranger?
Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Geir VeThoshav Anochi Imachem) explains that Avraham Avinu is a foreigner who has settled amongst them. But Avraham could have said this in simpler language. Ramban (ad loc. s.v. Geir VeThoshav Anochi Imachem) explains that in ancient Cana’an, everyone had familial burial grounds, and foreigners were buried in a Potter’s Field, a common burial ground. Avraham wanted to transition from a stranger of the land to a resident so that Efron would sell him the property and allow him to establish a family burial cave. According to Ramban, the phrase describes Avraham’s current status in the land while negotiating with Efron. But let’s put this idea on hold for a moment and look back to Parashat Lech Lecha.
In Lech Lecha, we see Avraham and Lot part ways, and Lot goes to live in Sedom (BeReishit 13:8-12). By Lot going to live in a place as despicable as Sodom, we see an acknowledgement and acceptance of their wicked ways on his part. As Rashi comments (13:10 s.v. Bo’achah Tzo’ar), it is to Lot’s discredit that he chooses to live in Tzo’ar, because he was attracted to their vulgarity. This shows that Lot liked the ways of the people there, and as he takes up residence in Sedom, he wants to integrate, blend in, and assimilate with the people of Sedom. But a few Perakim later, when we see the story of the destruction of Sedom, the people there do not seem to respect Lot as a resident, as the Pasuk says, “VaYomeru HaEchad Ba LaGur VaYishepot Shaphot Atah Nara Lecha MeiHem,” “And they said: ‘This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs play the judge; now will we deal worse with thee, than with them’”(Genesis 19.9).
The people of Sedom are attacking Lot for harboring Avraham, and they still see Lot as a foreigner, as the Pasuk above states: “The one who came to live should be a judge upon us?” Lot does not achieve the integration that he was after. He is still viewed as an outsider. His plan to drop his Jewish roots, albeit limited, failed.
This is in stark contrast to our Sedrah and original discussion regarding Geir Toshav. Not only does Avraham not assimilate, but he makes specific mention of it in his opening statements to Efron by declaring himself a Geir Toshav. Avraham Avinu says he is a Geir, a stranger, specifically calling out attention to the fact that he is not one of them, a Cana’anite. He is a Jew, yet he can still interact with them without assimilating. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik develops this idea. The Rav explained that Avraham was defining the nature of a Jew’s duality in the secular world. We, as Jewish “Toshavim,” or citizens, are involved, and thrive, in all aspects of the world, from our forefather’s profession of real estate (found in the opening of this week’s Parashah) to politics to cultural pursuits to science, but we always know that we are still a Geir, a stranger.
Avraham was conducting business with a non-Jew, as many of us this likely do every day, and in that aspect, he is a Toshav, or citizen. But why was he purchasing the field? Because in religious aspects he is always a Geir, or stranger, and must follow Jewish burial practices with his own burial site. As Jews living in a non-Jewish world, we must always remember that we can and should interact with the irreligious world with Toshav/citizen mindset, but we should not replace our religious, Geir/outsider, identity, like Lot, with secular practices.