"A Stranger and Resident Am I with You"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


Parashat CHAYEI SARA

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

 

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"A Stranger and Resident Am I with You"

Adapted by Shaul Barth

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

"Avraham arose from before his dead and he spoke to the children of Chet, saying: I am a stranger and a resident with you; give me a possession of a burial place in your midst, that I may bury my dead from before me." (Bereishit 23:3-4)

 

The Rishonim debate the meaning of the seemingly repetitious expression, "a stranger and a resident." Rashi offers two explanations:

 

"'A stranger and a resident' – a stranger from a different land, and I settled in your midst.

And the midrash expounds: If you agree [to give me a burial place], I am a stranger; if not, I shall be a resident, and I shall take it by law, for God said to me: 'To your descendants I shall give this land.'"

 

According to the first explanation, the repetition in the verse expresses different periods in Avraham's life: "In the past, I was a stranger, a guest, in the land; now I seek to become a permanent resident." According to the midrash, however, Avraham uses this dual expression to describe two different aspects of his residency in Eretz Yisrael: on one hand he is a "stranger," having only recently arrived from Ur Kasdim. On the other hand, following the Divine promise of his inheritance of the land, no resident is more securely rooted in the land than he.

 

We may perhaps explain the dual expression in a third fashion – as expressing two different modes of man's existence in the world. The Midrash, at the beginning of parashat Vayechi (Bereishit Rabba, 96), relates to two other verses that juxtapose "strangers" and "residents":

 

"'For I am a stranger with You, a resident like all of my fathers' (Tehillim 39:13); 'For we are strangers before You, residents like all our fathers; our days upon the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope' (I Divrei Ha-yamim 29:15): If only [the reference were] to the shadow of a wall, or the shadow of a tree! Instead, we are like the shadow of a bird in flight, as it is written, 'a passing shadow' (Tehillim 104); 'and there is no hope' – there is none who has hope not to die."

 

This midrash addresses one of the most fundamental aspects of our human existence: we are mortal. A person has a certain number of years to live in the world; he cannot believe or hope that he will live forever. Our existence in the world is not as permanent residents; rather, "we are strangers before You." Nevertheless, so long as we are alive in the world, we behave as residents: we build, act, achieve, control, and dominate. While man is technically a stranger, in terms of his lifestyle in the world he is a permanent resident.

 

In truth, it seems that these are not two independent and disconnected aspects of existence, but rather two complementary perspectives that maintain an ongoing dialectic. On the one hand, the sense of "strangeness" in the world imbues a person with constant fear and even despair; on the other hand, the sense of "residency" causes him exaggerated pride, which ultimately can express itself in heresy, in denial of God's existence and His control of the world. A person dare not behave as though he is the sole and absolute ruler of the world, with the expectation that he will live forever. At the same time, he cannot allow himself to wallow in despair, sitting passively and waiting to die, neglecting the task entrusted to him so long as he lives. Thus, we may say that in general, a person's life is balanced somewhere between these two points, and so it should be.

 

The Gemara (Berakhot 31a) expresses this idea in the following anecdote:

 

"The Sages said to Rav Hamnuna, in the middle of a feast: 'Sing something for us!'

He said to them: 'Woe to us, for we shall die; woe to us, for we shall die!'"

 

Is this the most appropriate song that Rav Hamnuna could find to sing at a feast? Was this fitting for the happy occasion in which he was participating? It seems that specifically while everyone was enjoying the party, feeling as though they were in control of themselves and their actions, Rav Hamnuna sought to bring some balance and to emphasize to them their other identity, as "strangers."

 

But the story in the Gemara does not end with Rav Himnuna's song. It continues:

 

"They said to him: 'How shall we respond to you in song?'

He said to them: 'The Torah and the commandments shall protect us!'"

 

This conclusion reflects an important part of man's existence and reality in the world. As opposed to man's transient, finite existence, God is infinite and perfect in every respect. He "was, is, and will be"; "You are He Whose years will never end," unlike man, who lives with a constant awareness that he is a stranger, a sense that "our days are like a passing shadow." Therefore, despite the fact that man is always a "stranger" in the world, there are moments in his life where he is able to elevate himself above the transient reality created by his material existence, and to cleave to God, thereby sensing – if only for a short time – a feeling of eternity.

 

When a person immerses himself in the world of Torah, he is able to transcend the vanities of this world and to connect with God. In this state, the "stranger" connects with the "resident"; the transient connects with the Infinite. At such moments of transcendence above the "stranger" reality, man realizes his goal and his existential purpose in the world: "You who cleave to the Lord your God, ALL OF YOU" – your "stranger" aspect and your "resident" aspect together – "are alive this day" (Devarim 4:4)!

 

(This sicha was delivered on leil Shabbat parashat Chayei Sara 5763 [2002].)