Strangers & Aliens

Parashat Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Although Chayei Sarah means “the life of Sarah,” this parashah actually begins with her dying at one hundred and twenty-seven years old. Once we are given this information, the Torah recounts the process by which her husband, Abraham, procured a burial location for her. It details the dialogue between Abraham and the local Canaanites, the location of the burial site, the name of the seller, the selling price, and the transaction details. In this dialogue between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite (the seller), Abraham petitioned with the local population by saying, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you” (Genesis 23:4). Why does Abraham say this, and what is the significance? Let’s explore its implications.

Sarah died at Hebron (23:2), and that is where Abraham sought to purchase a tomb for her. The land Hashem promised Abraham extends from the Nile River in Egypt to the Euphrates that flows through modern-day Syria and Iraq (Genesis 15:18–20). Before Sarah’s passing, Abraham had been dwelling in Beersheba, which is about 45 miles southwest of Jerusalem as the crow flies. If we think about Abraham’s location when he was speaking, he was within the land that God had promised him and was already dwelling in the region. If this is the case, why does he claim he is merely “a sojourner and foreigner”? Shouldn’t he have told his audience that he was taking up permanent residence among them?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe resolves this by understanding Abraham’s words to be more of a statement of spiritual identity. They remind us that we are merely sojourners in this physical world and naturally long for our true home. Although Abraham was a permanent resident of Canaan, he still considered himself to be a sojourner because he had not yet reached his final destination: the World to Come.

As we learned in our previous portion, the deeds of the fathers are signposts for the children. This means that the actions of our fathers have a significant bearing on how things play out in our own lives. The actions of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in particular have a great effect upon us. If we are spiritually “in-tune,” we will follow the pattern of their successes. If we are spiritually dull, however, we will follow their shortcomings. Abraham longed for the day in which God’s presence would be made manifest on this earth, and he considered his days to be merely sojourning until that time. Shouldn’t it be fitting for his children to do likewise?

A story is told about the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) in which a wealthy Jew from America, who had been deeply touched by his teachings, traveled all the way to Radin, Poland to visit the great tzaddik in his home. Upon entering his home, he was not only shocked but also appalled by the condition of his dwellings, particularly the lack of furnishings. There were no chairs, no table, no bed, etc. The Chofetz Chaim simply sat at a wooden crate with a candle where he learned Torah. “Where is your furniture?” the visitor asked. “Where is yours?” the tzaddik replied. “That’s a ridiculous question! I am merely traveling from far away. Why would I carry all of my furniture with me?” retorted the visitor. “The same is true for me,” Chofetz Chaim replied. “I am only passing through this world. Carrying my possessions with me on this journey would be too cumbersome. They are waiting for me at the end of my journey.”

The Apostles took this position as well. Peter urged his disciples to consider themselves as sojourners in this life so that they would not succumb to the enticements of this world:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11–12)

We must always remember that this life is not permanent. As Peter reminds us, we are merely sojourners in this life. However, sometimes we forget and believe we have arrived at our final destination by investing too heavily into the trappings of this life. Often, we try to fill the spiritual void with the material things of this world. However, if we are truly sons and daughters of Abraham, then we should be living with a similar perspective to Abraham.

It’s time we reassessed our purpose in this life. Have we forgotten that we are merely sojourners? Are we using the time, energy, and resources we have been given to live for a higher purpose or have we settled for less than what we were created for? As long as we view this life as our home, we will never be able to elevate the holiness of this world and create a dwelling place for God’s presence. If we are honest with ourselves based on how we have been living our lives up to this point, can we say, “I am a sojourner and foreigner among you”? Or have we become a permanent resident of this world? It’s not too late to change our perspective and get busy. What will it take for you to give up your comforts and begin the journey anew?