Thursday, December 8th 2022   |

Person in the Parsha: Chayei Sarah



Before I entered the classroom that evening, I already knew that Zalman would come prepared with some dazzling piece of scholarship. The regular reader of this column will remember that last week, the fourth session of the class I was leading using the book of Genesis to study leadership, it was Othniel who dominated the conversation. He had a dramatic story to tell about his personal background and also shared an important insight into the nature of effective leadership.

A natural rivalry was developing between Othniel and Zalman, each vying for the position of “class scholar.” I was not the only one to notice this. Carol, the woman in the class who was always playing the “big sister” role to the men, opened the class discussion by turning to Zalman.

“Zalman,” she began, “I have no doubt that you are prepared with some remarkable observation about this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. I know how competitive you are with Othniel, and last week he stole the show. I’d like to hear what you have to say.”

Zalman face radiated with gratitude. “Thanks for the opening, Carol. I did find something extremely interesting and different, and I would like to share it with the class. But I’ll try to be as brief as possible, and leave time for some of the others to comment.”

Othniel graciously supported Zalman’s declaration, saying, “I had more than my share of time last week, Zalman, so go right ahead.”

Othniel began by summarizing the opening paragraphs of the parsha: Sarah’s death, Abraham’s eulogy and tears of grief, and the protracted negotiations between Abraham and the Hittites for the Cave of Machpelah, belonging to Efron the Hittite.

Then he launched into his thesis. “It strikes me,” he said, raising his voice for emphasis, “that one of the skills absolutely necessary for a good leader is the ability to negotiate. I was impressed by Abraham’s skill, political tact, and the human decency with which he negotiated—and achieved—his goal of purchasing an appropriate burial place for Sarah.

“But what I found particularly important was his knowledge of the business practices of the Hittites. He seemed to know exactly what to say, and that required some ‘homework’ on his part. I researched ‘Hittites’ and came across a fascinating article in a publication called the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, February 1953.

“The article was written by someone I never heard of named Manfred Lehmann, and it is entitled Abraham’s Purchase of Machpelah and Hittite Law. Lehmann points out that Abraham was thoroughly familiar with the laws of the Hittites, and that this is reflected in so much of the text describing the negotiations. For example, he points out that the Hittite landowner was obligated to pay taxes to the king. If he sold all of his property, the purchaser would be obligated to pay those taxes. But if he sold only part of his property, the purchaser would be exempt from those taxes, and the original property owner would have to pay them. This explains so many of the nuances of those negotiations, as Lehmann points out.”

At this point, I could not contain myself. I interrupted and informed the class that I knew Dr. Lehmann as a scholar, collector of rare Hebrew books, philanthropist, and as the father of one of my dearest friends. I did have to confess that I was ignorant of this particular essay and was hearing about Abraham’s expertise in Hittite law for the first time.

Zalman was particularly gratified that he was able to disclose information which even the teacher did not know. I think that the rest of the class was also suitably impressed with Zalman’s special efforts to bring this kind of new material into the class discussion.

Sam, as was his wont, summed it up: “Negotiation is indeed an important leadership skill. And the negotiator must be familiar with the background of his opponent. But Abraham was also demonstrating another leadership skill; namely, expertise not only in one’s own culture, but in the culture of others as well.”

A brief period of quiet ensued, during which it was apparent that this topic was ended, and that the class was ready to embark upon a new direction in the conversation. But it wasn’t just a new direction. It was a gender shift, as the three women, Carol, Miriam, and Priscilla, took charge.

Priscilla was the spokesperson for this triumvirate. “We are already five weeks into this course, and we have yet to identify a female leader. Carol, and Miriam and I have been discussing this vacuum and have decided that we would scour the text for women leaders, and would further argue that leadership requires a feminine touch. So for us, the important person in the parsha is Sarah. After all, it is her name that appears in the title of the parsha; an honor which neither Abraham nor Moses achieved.”

I repressed my urge to argue that not all of those for whom a parsha is named are Biblical heroes, and that Balak, for one, was a cunning and persistent enemy of the Jewish people. Instead, I encouraged the three women to develop their argument. They did so, quickly demonstrating that they too were quite capable of erudition, and each had a scholarly gem to offer.

But the limited space of this column forces me to share only Carol’s insight. Carol began by sharing her experience on a tour of Jewish sites in Eastern Europe. She had visited the city of Prague and paid her respects to the four hundred year old grave of the famed Torah scholar and Jewish leader, Maharal of Prague. She mentioned that her tour guide had pointed out the grave of another great sage, which usually went unnoticed, but was almost adjacent to that of the Maharal. It was the grave of Rabbi Ephraim of Lunshitz, the author of the Torah commentary, Kli Yakar.

“It was from that moment on,” continued Carol, “that I purchased an English translation of Kli Yakar and regularly study one passage each week. This week, the author notes that Abraham first eulogized Sarah and only later wept for her. But the natural reaction, argues Kli Yakar, is to first weep for one’s personal loss and only later eulogize the departed in terms of what he or she meant for others. He answers that Abraham knew two aspects of his wife Sarah. One was as his dear intimate life partner, and the other was as the Sarah whose very name meant “the leader,” “the Queen,” for all whom she brought close to the Almighty.

When standing by her open grave, he postponed his personal grief and delayed his weeping. He wanted to describe her in terms of who she was for the public, for all the hundreds of people for whom she was a Sarah, a dynamic and compassionate leader. He wanted to teach us all that this woman was not only his wife, but was a leader in her own right. Hence, he eulogized her publicly first, and only later withdrew into the solitude of his private grief.”

Sam summed it up: “This class is taking a new turn; indeed, it is reaching a new depth. Zalman has been able to take us to long forgotten, although recently unearthed, ancient Hittite law codes, but the women have taken us to one of the important current issues in Jewish leadership: the role of women, for which Sarah was certainly the first example.”

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