Torah from Around the World #352

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By: Rabbi Jordan D. Cohen, Senior Rabbi,

Temple Anshe Sholom

, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

The Journey from Ger to Toshav to Jew

“Then Abraham rose from beside his dead wife (Sarah) and spoke to the Hittites, saying, ‘I am a resident alien among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial’” (Genesis 23:3-4).

The early midlevel poet and commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1167 CE) commented:

I AM A RESIDENT ALIEN. When the word Ger – “stranger” – stands by itself, it refers to a transient stranger.


– “sojourner” – means a resident stranger. Abraham said to them, “I am a sojourner among you. We are all mortal, and I do not have an


– “possession” – an inherited or bought piece of land for use as a burial plot.” (Ibn Ezra’s Commentary on Genesis, 23:4)

Abraham’s beloved wife Sarah has died, and Abraham seeks a burial site to lay his wife to rest. Abraham negotiates with Efron the Hittite for the right to purchase the Cave of Machpelah, the eventual Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. Today, the

Ma’arat HaMachpelah

in Hebron is one of the sites that UNESCO seeks to detach from Jewish History, but in our


it is the first property purchased in what will become the Promised Land.

Throughout history and throughout the world, when a new Jewish community is being established the first piece of property to be acquired by the community is land for a cemetery. While learning and worship can take place anywhere, you never know when you will need land designated for burial of the dead. Our tradition makes a big deal out of the fact that Abraham, reeling with grief over the death of his life mate, negotiated with Efron and purchased the Cave and the adjoining field at full market price, rather than just helping himself to that which God has promised to him and his descendants.

In his commentary, Ibn Ezra seeks to make sense out of the way Abraham presents himself to Efron.

Witnessed by the entire the community, Abraham approaches Efron with great respect and formality. It is as part of these formalities that Abraham identifies himself to Efron as a

Ger v’Toshav

, an almost contradictory term which literally means “a stranger and a resident”. The term has most often been understood to mean a “resident alien” or one who is from a foreign land, but who lives among the members of the local community. This term, which came to be quite common later in the Torah – with a very specific meaning – is used here for the first time. Thus the commentator analyzes the text to determine what Abraham meant when he used it.

Ibn Ezra suggests that Abraham uses the term to great effect, making the point that he is, indeed, a


– a foreigner – but he is now a resident of the land. Therefore, like all other residents, he has a right to land – an


or “possession” – specifically for the purpose of burial. In asking for the land, he is executing a right, rather than asking for a special privilege.

The term

Ger Toshav

has come to refer to one who is in the process of converting to Judaism. Their status, as one who is not yet Jewish but who is living within the Jewish community – living an effectively Jewish life and intending to formally become Jewish – is neither betwixt nor between. Like Abraham among the Hittites, it is the intention and sincerity of proselytes that makes them welcome in the Jewish community, and ultimately accepted as Jews. Abraham clearly had his own reasons for wanting this particular burial site for Sarah, just as every convert has their own profoundly personal motivation for becoming Jewish. In the eyes of the community, the reasons why one chooses to become a


are perhaps less important than how one goes about becoming


– a member of the community. Yet it is the intention and the sincerity that starts one on the journey towards Judaism. Abraham had a deep sense of divine mission, and his efforts were the first steps on his path towards the fulfillment of a divine promise. For many who choose to become Jews, they too are on a path towards fulfillment of a personal divine commitment. Like Abraham, it is sometimes difficult for converts to identify to others exactly who they are in their souls; it is a deeply personal matter. Like Abraham’s approach to Efron, we need to give them respect and ultimately accept them as members of the community with full rights. On their own, an individual can decide to become a


. It takes a community to welcome them to become


. It is only through an inclusive spirit of community that one can take that final step towards becoming a Jew.

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