The Torah portion of Chayei Sarah, read last week, is the passage where Abraham buys a plot of land in which to bury Sarah. This is certainly interesting from a current events point of view.
The Torah reads: "And Abraham rose up from before his dead, and spoke unto the children of Heth, saying: 'I am a stranger and a sojourner with you; give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.' And the children of Heth answered Abraham, saying unto him: 'Hear us, my lord: thou art a might prince among us; in the choice of our sepulchers bury thy dead; none of us shall withhold from thee his sepulcher, but that thou mayest bury thy dead.' And Abraham rose up, and bowed down to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth. And he spoke with them, saying: 'If it be your mind that I should bury my dead out of my sight, hear me and entreat for me to Ephron the son of Zohar, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah, which he hath, which is in the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in the midst of you for a possession of a burying-place.'"
This conversation continues, and then Abraham buys the land, without negotiation, for four hundred shekels of silver -- a tremendously overpriced amount. The obvious question, is why doesn't Abraham accept the free burial site?
In the previousTorah portion we read another passage, where Abraham is bringing the spoils of victory over the four Kings to the King of Sodom. "And the king of Sodom said unto Abram: 'Give me the persons and take the goods to thyself.' And Abram said to the king of Sodom: 'I have lifted up my hand unto the Lord, God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread nor a shoe-latchet nor aught that is thine, lest thou shouldn't say: I have made Abram rich;"
Why in this case does Abraham refuse to take any of the spoils that he won in battle?
There are separate explanations commonly used to explain each of these decisions. With Abraham's decision not to accept the free burial plot we are lead to understand that Abraham wanted uncontested title to the land. In the second case, the Torah itself provides an explanation: Abram didn't want somebody to be able to say that they made Abram rich. These two explanations are both perfectly valid. However, Abraham's actions in these cases have so much in common that it seems there should also be a single explanation for both incidents.
The following explanation has bearing not only on Abraham's time, but on our time as well. Abraham -- in fact all the forefathers -- are very careful with favors. However, while the forefathers repeatedly turn down favors, from Sodom, from Ephron the son of Zohar, from Esau, from Laban etc... they do establish contracts. They establish contracts with Abimelech over wells, with Ephron for the cave, with Esau for the birthright, with Laban for Rachel. The forefathers have little fear of contracts -- but they consistently shy away from favors -- just as Abraham did in the two incidents above.
So why are they attracted to contracts while they simultaneously avoid favors? What is the difference between a contract and a favor?
You might say that a contract is a two-sided agreement. Abraham pays money for a cave. Jacob exchanges red lentils for the birthright. And Abimelech creates a peace contract with Isaac. However, a favor is also two-sided. The giver expects to receive a favor in return. In tribal societies -- and even in modern societies -- favors are to be returned. They almost have the force of law.
However, while both favors and contracts are two-sided there are two other distinctions. First, favors aren't actually law. Second, favors, unlike contracts, are open-ended.
A consistent theme throughout the book of Genesis is the danger of favors and the superiority of contracts -- and the close relative of contracts, law. Just as the Iliad phases out honor and replaces it with a duty to society, Genesis phases out tribal favors and replaces them with law. Genesis lays the framework for the rest of the Torah. In story form, it introduces the idea of one G-d, it introduces the concept of a Jewish people, and it introduces the concept of law and contracts. The Jewish people are the people who have a contract with Hashem. It is this contract that paves the way for the remaining four books of Torah.
Why does the Torah feel it necessary to replace favors with contracts? What about their closed-ended nature makes contracts superior?
To answer that question, we have to look at a few favors that are accepted. After the fiasco with Abimelech in which Abraham says Sarah is his wife, Abimelech grants him a favor. The Torah says: "And Abimelech took sheep and oxen, and men-servants and women-servents, and gave them unto Abraham and restored him Sarah his wife. And Abimelech said: "Behold, my land is before thee: dwell where it pleaseth thee.' And unto Sarah he said: "Behold, I have given thy brother a thousand pieces of silver; behold, it is for thee a covering of the eyes to all that are with thee; and before all men thou art righted.'"
And what happens afterwards? In the next chapter we read: "And it came to pass at that time that Abimelech and Pichol the captain of his host spoke with Abraham, saying: 'God is with thee in all that thou doest. Now therefore, swear unto me here by G-d that thou wilt not deal falsely with me, nor with my son, nor with my son's son; but according to the kindness that I have done unto thee, thou shalt do unto me, and to the land wherein thou hast sojourned.' And Abraham said: 'I will swear'. And Abraham reproved Abimelech because of the well of water, which Abimelech's servants had violently taken away. And Abimelech said: 'I know not who hath done this thing, neither didst thou tell me, neither yet heard I of it, but today.'"
Basically, Abimelech has provided a favor and now feels perfectly in the right to seize Abraham's wells. Furthermore, he even denies involvement or knowledge of the well-being seized. The situation is only fixed when Abraham creates a contract with Abimelech, "And Abraham took sheep and oxen, and gave them unto Abimelech; and they two made a covenant."
The lesson we can learn from this passage is that favors don't work well, especially with untrustworthy characters like Abimelech. Their open-ended character lends itself to corruption. Favors, in the wrong hands, don't create friendships; instead they serve as tools for manipulation.
To understand the risks of favors in the modern world, we need look no further than the Middle East peace process. The Oslo Accords weren't a contract, but were an exchange of favors that hopefully, sometime in the future, would lead to a contract. The Oslo Accords were open-ended. And in the hands of a character like Arafat they are truly dangerous. A contract on the other hand -- which Arafat can never agree to -- takes the power of open-endedness away from him. When dealing with such a man, Mitchell Plans and other 'confidence building' measures are worse than useless. It is contracts that are required.
Likewise, the U.S. has for many years exchanged power for oil with the Saudi' royal family. The current alliance with Pakistan is a favors exchange with Musharrif. And alliances with Syria, Iran, Tajikistan and many other countries all follow the same pattern. The U.S. exchanges money and power for support in the war. These relationships are dangerous. While they are attractive in the short term, in the next chapter they may turn out badly.
While accepting the land of Goshen in Egypt seemed like a good idea at the time, it wasn't long before it lead to the slavery of the Jews in Egypt.
So do we just establish contracts with these nations? The forefathers didn't create spurious contracts. The birthright, access to wells, burial plots -- these are necessities. The forefathers had to enter into these contracts. For the same reasons, Israel must eventually enter into contracts with the Arabs. But if the U.S. has the opportunity to enter into a contract with the Saudi royals over oil, or Pakistan over military bases, etc.... should it?
The simple answer is probably not. As we learn from the forefathers, when dealing with unprincipled, and fundamentally bad apples like the Saudi royals, Arafat, or Saddam, even contracts should only be entered into only when they must be.
While the U.S. needs oil and military support, the U.S. also has the power to support the creation of free and democratic governments in oil producing regions -- even if that means a temporary dampening in oil supplies.
The U.S. has the opportunity and ability to support the creation of governments -- governments which do not need to create external enemies in order to prevent their own citizens from turning against them.
Put another way, the U.S. has the opportunity and the ability to create governments with which favors can be exchanged.
On essential items, like the defeat of the Soviet monster, the U.S. should indeed create contracts. But contracts and law aren't the only lesson we learn about in this week's Torah portion. We also learn that even contracts with questionable characters should only be entered into only when they must be. In all other cases, the U.S. (and Israel) should support freedom and democracy over the short-term goals of hunting down specific terrorists. Using this policy, a great many problems could be avoided.
Joseph Cox is a Torah from Dixie Columnist
Joseph Cox , the founder of givedaily.org, writes a weekly column tying the Torah portion into current events.