Graciousness and Rights

November 25th: Chaye’ Sarah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In addition to the main themes of Chaye’ Sarah—the purchase of a burial place for Sarah and the acquisition of a bride for Isaac, our Torah portion gives us a glimpse into the etiquette and social mores of the ancient Land of Israel. When Abraham wants to buy the Cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite, he does not just walk up to Ephron and propose the purchase. He goes to the Gate of the City (of Hebron), a place of public commerce, and importunes the entire business community. The business leaders treat him with great respect. “The Hittites replied to Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord: you are the elect of God among us. Bury your dead in the choicest of our burial places; none of us will withhold his burial place from you for burying your dead.’”

Abraham is exceedingly respectful in return, “bowing low to the people of the land, the Hittites.” When he and Ephron finally get down to business (though Ephron is there all the time), there is great politeness and deliberate courtesy. They do a little posturing in the style of Middle Eastern bartering, but the respect and consideration is displayed in the Biblical account as an important part of the transaction.

In the case of Abraham’s servant (unnamed in the text) seeking out a wife for Isaac, etiquette is a big part of the story as well. The servant behaves with great respect and devotion to Abraham and to Abraham’s family up in Syria. The family—even though they do not at first know that the servant is from their cousin—behaves with deliberate courtesy and hospitality. First, Rebekah helps the servant with water from the communal well and offers to water his camels. Second, she acts on behalf of her family—and their apparent custom of hospitality—and invites him to their home. There is respect and hospitality on all sides. The only pushiness is that, instead of letting Rebekah spend ten days getting ready for her journey and new life, the servant begs them to let them/her leave immediately. Rebekah consents, and they travel back to the Negev. We even see the practice of modesty when Rebekah first meets Isaac: she alights from the camel before approaching him and covers herself with her veil.

Etiquette is not the main theme of either story, but it is an important part of the narrative’s fabric. The same could be said of the story of God’s visit to Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18. The headlines are that the elderly couple will soon be blessed with a baby, but the details of gracious behavior and enthusiastic hospitality are indispensable to the holy context of the encounter.

I think that there may be a lesson here for the modern world. In so many contexts, we seem to be suffering from a lack of graciousness, lovingkindness, and respectful behavior. One possible response is assertiveness, and we often see individuals go into a kind of combat mode and demand respect and insist upon their rights. I believe in rights, but I notice how often the invocation of one person’s rights inspires the other side to go into their own combat mode over their own rights. The result is less than gracious, and I wonder how such conflicts could be avoided or mitigated.

Here is an example. There was once a rural school district where some Jewish students were troubled by Christian prayers on the loudspeaker in the morning and at football games. I realize that such a practice is contrary to Supreme Court decisions, but this custom nonetheless persists in many locations. What could the Jewish family do? One option was, of course, to resort to courts or court orders—threatening to bring in the ACLU, while another option was to try an appeal to fairness or simple lovingkindness and gracious hospitality to newcomers/outsiders. In this particular case (in a school district in Florida), the legal threat was attempted, and it was quite striking how a discussion of rights for one side quickly devolved into a discussion of rights for the other side: “We Christians built this country and we have the right to practice our religion, and these foreigners (Jews from Chicago) have no right to come in here and change our way of doing things….”

I’ve always wondered if an appeal to the noble tradition of Southern Hospitality and the Biblical value of kindness to strangers would have helped matters more than the row that the rights approach provoked. I also wonder at how egregious the violation of the Jews’ rights were—and whether the anger and defensiveness invoked in the local community ended up being more damaging than listening to the Christian prayers. One level of the situation involved rights and civil liberties, but another level involved the social fabric of the community and the perceived assault on local sensibilities. Was this a battle worth fighting?

What I am saying is that there is a difference between law and lovingkindness. When we focus on law and on our rights, we immediately go to a place of authority for one side and impotence for the other. If the state or the court makes a legal determination, it empowers one person and subjects the other person to the will of the court. We don’t like that feeling—the feeling of being forced to do something we don’t want to do, and we often respond defensively. I’m not downplaying the importance of rights, but rather I’m focusing on the emotional process of the situation—and on attitudinal consequences.

Sometimes, it is necessary to resort to legislative or judicial intervention, and some civil-liberty deprivations are worse than others, but I believe that we also need to keep in mind the warp and weave of the social fabric and how best, in any given situation, it can be worked.