Parashas Chaiyei Sarah

The beginning of this week’s parashah records Avraham’s negotiation with the men of Cheis to acquire a burial site for Sarah. After Avraham makes his initial request, the men of Cheis answer him (Bereishis 23:6): “Hear us, my lord: You are a prince of God in our midst. Bury your dead in the best of our burial sites; no man among us will withhold his burial site from you to bury your dead.” The Midrash elaborates on what they were saying (Bereishis Rabbah 58:6): “You are a prince over us, you are a king over us, you are a God over us.” The Maggid explains that they were telling him: “You need not buy a burial site from us for money. You are a prince and a king over us, so you can take from us whatever burial site you please, even the choicest, and no one will hold you back, just as a king can freely take for his own use any field within his kingdom.”
The Maggid then elaborates on the type of honor the men of Cheis showed Avraham. They regarded Avraham as a king, and honored him on that basis. Now, it is natural for people to honor a king, but we find a hint in Havakkuk 2:16 that the honor a person receives is not always to his credit. Regarding the Babylonian king Nevuchadnetzar, Havakkuk writes: savata kalon mi-kavod. Literally this phrase means: “You are sated more with disgrace than with honor.” But since the prefix mi- can mean from or through as well as more than, we can render the verse as: “You are sated with disgrace through honor.” Thus, honor can sometimes bring disgrace. When is this so? And how can we see from what the men of Cheis said to Avraham whether the honor they gave him was to his credit or to his disgrace?
When we speak of honor, we usually mean honor that a person receives out of respect for his wisdom, sterling character, and good-heartednesss toward others. But, as we know well, sometimes a person is shown honor for the completely opposite reason: He is a hooligan, a man who constantly browbeats others, and people show him honor to appease him and keep him from harming them. This honor is not out of respect, but out of fear. Now, in the case of a truly noble man, the more honor he receives, the more it shows how great he is. By contrast, in the case of the hooligan, the more honor he receives, the more it shows how contemptible he is. This is how it was with Nevuchadnetzar. He was a despicable tyrant who brought great suffering to his entire vast kingdom. He received great honor, but it brought him only disgrace, for it was honor out of fear.
The same idea is reflected in one of Shlomo HaMelech’s teachings (Mishlei 3:35): “The wise will inherit honor, while fools collect disgrace.” The wise, on account of their nobility of character, are truly worthy of honor – for them, honor is like an inheritance, that they receive by right. Moreover, as reflected in the future tense phrasing “will inherit,” they constantly receive more and more honor, as their noble character is further and further publicized. But when people honor a lowly fool, the honor turns into disgrace.
The men of Cheis told Avraham: “You are a king over us, so you can take for yourself the best of our burial sites, for the entire land is yours.” But they took care not to create the impression that they viewed him as a hooligan who came to take land from them by force. They described him as a “prince of God” – a saintly man who was truly worthy of honor.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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