Civility – Hayye Sarah 5781

D'var Torah | Genesis

As much as Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin of Volozhin (1816-1893) was ensconced in what today would be called the Orthodox movement in Judaism, he was no obscurantist. In fact, his popular commentaries feature the application of scientific study to Jewish texts, rigorous scholarship, and unorthodox thinking. In his introduction to his commentary on the book of Genesis he discusses why the first book of the Bible is sometimes called Sefer Ha-yashar, the Book of the Righteous.


The most obvious answer is that the prophets refer to the book of Genesis this way. That is how the NeTZiV, as he is known by his acronym, understands Joshua 10:13 and Second Samuel 1:18. The earliest accounts of Israel’s victories over its enemies to which the prophetic texts refer are recorded in the book of Genesis. The second answer is that the book of Genesis describes in detail the exemplary conduct of the patriarchs who were righteous (yashar) even in their treatment of idolators. Among the examples the NeTzi does not cite – though could have – is Abraham’s interaction with the Hittites when purchasing a burial plot for his recently deceased wife, Sarah.


With considerable detail the text narrates Abraham’s attentiveness to protocol and etiquette. Though he was a wealthy and powerful chieftain, Abraham acts as if he is a mere mendicant. He emphasizes his resident alien status as a way of accentuating his inferior status. The locals, however, reject this ploy, properly perceiving Abraham’s elevated status (Gen. 23:6). But Abraham persists in keeping up the charade because showing respect to one’s interlocutor is always apropos. Abraham bows to the Hittites as a sign of deference. They do not share Abraham’s faith or values but in the course of interpersonal relations religious differences are functionally irrelevant.


The details of this episode, so carefully preserved and presented in the text, are intended to show that good Jews are not merely those who adhere to proper rituals but those who also follow the rules of civil propriety, what Rabbi Berlin calls “the ways of the world.”


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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