Ya'akovPurchases a Field

  • Rav Michael Hattin
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Ya'akov Purchases a Field


By Rav Michael Hattin





            Twenty long years have elapsed since Ya'akov fled from the wrath of his brother Esav, tearfully took leave of Be'er Sheva, and set out eastwards for Charan, his mother's birthplace.  There, Ya'akov joined the household of Lavan his wily uncle and entered his employ as a tender of sheep.  Ya'akov labored mightily on behalf of Lavan, until the latter's sheep were much increased.  During those decades, Ya'akov also built his own family, for he married Lavan's two daughters and had children by them as well as by their maidservants.  Ever diligent and conscientious, he also acquired his own flocks, and later augmented his holdings with the securing of servants, camels and donkeys.  Thus it was that when the inevitable falling-out with deceitful Lavan occurred, Ya'akov was well-positioned to strike out on his own.  But unable to assume that Lavan would willingly release him, for over the years his work for his uncle/father-in-law had more and more taken on the trappings of bonded indenture, Ya'akov fled once again, this time westwards towards his birthplace of Canaan. 


            Setting his sights for distant Mount Gil'ad, Ya'akov hesitantly journeyed forth with his entire household while Lavan was preoccupied with the shearing of his sheep, but it did not take long for the latter to ascertain what had happened and to give chase and overtake him.  But as Lavan camped overnight at Mount Gil'ad preparing for confrontation on the morrow, God unexpectedly came to him in a menacing vision, warning him to desist from his plans of aggression.  Lavan reluctantly relented, he and Ya'akov concluded a tentative dיtente, and the patriarch continued unmolested on his journey westwards.




            As he approached the River Jordan, Canaan's natural border, Ya'akov was seized by dread of another sort.  Esav his brother, who had in the interim established himself among the rocky cliffs of the southern Dead Sea region, would no doubt soon receive reports of his twin brother's return home, and who could say whether the ancient and acrid animosities had dissipated with the years?  Ya'akov thus took the initiative, dispatching messengers towards Edom, but these were rebuffed by Esav, who (it was reported) had set out towards Ya'akov with four hundred fighting men. 


            Tactically, Ya'akov divided his camp, and tearfully he implored God's mercy:


…Lord of my father Avraham and of my father Yitzchak, God who has said to me "return to your land and to your birthplace and I will deal kindly with you."  I have been undeserving of all of the compassion and truth that You have done on behalf of Your servant, for with only with my rod did I initially pass over this Yarden, while now I have become two camps!  Save me please from the hands of my brother, from the hands of Esav, for I fear him lest he will come and strike me down along with the mothers and the children.  But You had said that "I will surely deal kindly with you, and make your descendents as numerous as the sands of the sea that cannot be counted for number!" (32:10-13).


Though preparing for battle, Ya'akov simultaneously prepared for conciliation, for he then sent a series of well-spaced gifts from his flocks to Esav.  And seeking greater strategic depth in the event of hostilities, Ya'akov transferred his family and remaining belongings across the tributary of the Yabbok, returning after night had already fallen to ascertain that nothing had been left behind.  It was then that an apparition confronted him, striving with him until the breaking of the dawn.  Ya'akov prevailed in the contest and acquired the new appellation of "Israel," though not without sustaining painful injury in the process. As the sun rose, it became clear that the apparition had been Divinely dispatched, to indicate to the fearful patriarch that he would not be vanquished by his brother so long as his trust in God was steadfast.  Later the next morning, Esav finally encountered him, and though Ya'akov was still not sure of his brother's intentions, his heart was firm.  Dramatically, Ya'akov bowed profusely while the hunter approached, but then Esav tearfully fell upon him and began to cry.  And thus it was that Ya'akov's second confrontation with a hostile family member who had been hell-bent on his destruction was also unexpectedly transformed into salvation!  Lavan from the east and Esav from the west, the one a master of deceit and the other a merciless warlord, neither they nor their successors would prevail against the gentle but supremely resolute Ya'akov, for God was his strength. 




            Taking his leave of his brother, Ya'akov pressed onwards towards his destination.  Though he paused for a time at Sukkot near the river's eastern banks, he finally forded the Yarden and ascended into the verdant hills of Canaan and towards a tearful reunion with his aged father at Chevron:


Ya'akov arrived whole and complete at the city of Shekhem that is in the land of Canaan, on his journey from Padan, and he encamped at the edge of the city.  He purchased from the sons of Chamor the governor of Shekhem the plot of field in which he had pitched his tent, for one hundred "kaseeta."  There he set up an altar, and he called it "Almighty, the Lord of Israel" (33:18-20).


But many serious setbacks still separated Ya'akov from his goal, for Dina his daughter was later raped at Shekhem, Devora his mother's nurse perished at Beit El, beloved Rachel died in childbirth enroute to Beit Lechem, and at Migdal Eder Reuven his firstborn disgraced him.  In effect, it is possible to trace the exact geographical route through the hills taken by the patriarch from north to south, simply by following this tale of woe!  The above verses describing the peaceful arrival at Shekhem must therefore be cast in even sharper relief, for in the wider context they represent a brief and welcome respite in the otherwise interminable and tragic litany of Ya'akov's struggles.  We can readily appreciate why the Torah stressed the matter of Ya'akov's "wholeness and completeness" at precisely this juncture of the arrival at Shekhem, for his intact (if somewhat worn) state of body, mind and family that was the miraculous outcome of his encounters with Lavan and Esav was soon to be irreparably shattered.  While the all-too-fleeting series of verses can thus be understood as a welcome interlude, the passage does nevertheless raise a number of other questions, chief among them: why does Ya'akov purchase a field that he will soon intentionally abandon, for his ultimate destination is his ancestral homestead at Chevron some 70 kilometers to the south?  Why does he build an altar at the sight and what might be the significance of its provocative name?




            Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (12th century, Spain), in an uncharacteristically long passage, sheds some light on the matter (commentary to 33:19-20):


The Torah indicates that Ya'akov purchased the plot of land in order to highlight the great merit of the land of Israel.  Whosoever has a portion in the land, it is as significant as a portion in the world to come…the correct interpretation concerning the naming of the altar is that Ya'akov called it "Almighty Lord of Israel," just as Moshe referred to his altar as "God is my banner" (Shemot 17:15) on account of the miracle that He wrought for Israel there.  Similarly, when the Divine Presence returns to Jerusalem, the city shall be called "God is there" (Yechezkel 45:35).  In the same way, because God assisted Ya'akov, he therefore called the altar at which he served Him "Almighty Lord of Israel," for He is strong and overpowering ("Almighty"), and He preserved him enroute ("Lord of Israel") so that Ya'akov arrived at Canaan intact, for there are to be found Shekhem and Sukkot.  It further appears to me that he remained at Shekhem for many years, for Dina had not yet reached even seven years of age and Shim'on and Levi were still young.


Here the Ibn Ezra relates to both issues.  Concerning the purchase of the field, Ibn Ezra sees in it an important statement about acquiring land in Israel.  One who buys land in Israel has secured a portion of the world to come!  It is, however, curious that Ibn Ezra presents such a seemingly "Midrashic" interpretation as the straightforward reading of the text.  In fact, however, his words here do recall his almost identical comments to a similar passage, namely the story of Avraham's purchase of the cave of Machpela from Efron the Chittite, as related in Bereishit 23.  Recall that in the aftermath of beloved Sarah's demise at Chevron, Avraham entered into prolonged negotiations with Efron, among the assembly of all of the Chittites, concerning the purchase of his field and the cave situated within it.  Though Efron was willing to offer the land and the cave upon it gratis, Avraham demurred, for he realized that while a gift could be withdrawn, a purchase was legally binding forever.  Thus Avraham insisted on publicly paying cash for the land, and though Efron then attempted to dampen the patriarch's enthusiasm by demanding an exorbitant sum of money, Avraham readily agreed to the outrageous terms, counting out "four hundred silver shekels of currency."  Ibn Ezra there remarks:


This entire section was stated in order to highlight the merit of the land of Israel above all other lands, for both the living as well as for the dead.  Additionally, it comes to indicate that God's word to Avraham concerning possession of the land was fulfilled.




            Interestingly, these two passages have much in common.  They both describe events in the lives of the patriarchs, they both recount their buying of land in Canaan from its native owners, and they both present that purchase against the backdrop of the Divine promises concerning its eventual possession.  But while the section about Machpela discusses death and burial, that concerning Shekhem relates to life.  Ya'akov had arrived at Shekhem "whole" and his acquisition of land celebrates that life.  And while the buying of the cave had no cultic content, Ya'akov's purchase of land on the outskirts of Shekhem serves as an important opportunity for him to build an altar and to call it by God's name.


            It seems then that the intent of the Ibn Ezra is to emphasize the life-affirming character of Ya'akov's arrival at Shekhem, for though the patriarch had been confronted by many challenges over the course of the previous twenty some odd years, he had met them all and had prevailed.  Significantly, the survival of Ya'akov and his astonishing endurance is here twinned with his arrival in the land of Canaan, as if to say that the land itself was a catalyst for his success.  After all, landlessness means vulnerability, a simple equation that Lavan exploited to great effect when Ya'akov unexpectedly arrived on his doorstep, penniless and in exile from his birthplace and family.  To possess land, then, and especially a portion in the land of Israel, is to take hold of life.   


            And as for the altar, it refers to God.  Ya'akov built an altar at that place and called it by God's name, because the Deity had assisted him and had "preserved him enroute so that Ya'akov arrived at Canaan intact."  The building of the altar is therefore an explicit statement about God's involvement in Ya'akov's life and about his recognition that only His intervention had preserved him from harm.  Lavan and later Esav were unable to prevail against him not for lack of their superior strength, but solely because God had decreed Ya'akov's survival.  The name that Ya'akov assigned to the altar, especially provocative in the idolatrous milieu of Canaan's hills, comes to underline God's intercession.  And while Ya'akov would eventually abandon the site and continue on his journey southwards (though admittedly, for Ibn Ezra at least, not for a number of years), the need to commemorate his survival took precedence over more utilitarian and practical concerns.  Let the field be left behind – what mattered now was the acknowledgement of Divine assistance, for moments of inspiration must not be allowed to pass unacknowledged!


            The message for us is clear.  While our individual lives present each one of us with myriad personal challenges and our life as a nation is also not without many tragic episodes, we must not foolishly squander the opportunities that are afforded by moments of "wholeness" – to thank God and to acknowledge His care.  Our Torah, though never blind to the realities of unjust suffering and the undeniable fact of gratuitous grief, is nevertheless overwhelmingly life-affirming.  We neither wallow in misfortune nor allow ourselves to become consumed by sorrow but somehow move forwards to embrace life in spite of it all.  Of all of the patriarchs, Ya'akov's life was most fraught with calamity, but he remained unbowed even as that calamity stared him squarely in the face.  He alone called an altar by the name of God's might because for him that was His most abiding attribute.  Ya'akov prevailed because his strength was in God Almighty.  May his example continue to inspire us, as the people of Israel, his namesake, prepare to engage the difficult challenges that lay ahead.


Shabbat Shalom