This Week's Torah Reading
Recited in synagogues all over the world, this week's Torah portion, Genesis Chapter 23, is titled "Chaye Sarah" - the life span of Judaism's First Matriarch. It's about an intimate family event: Sarah dies. She is mourned by Abraham. He buys a plot of land for her burial. Yet, its significance extends deep, far and wide over nearly four millennia. Because "Chaye Sarah" also marks the beginning of Zionism.
To reach this conclusion, we need only examine the biblical text. Abraham buys a burial site for Sarah from Ephron, a Hittite, for 400 shekels of silver after rejecting Ephron's offer of an outright gift. Abraham insists on a duly sealed deed for the land in perpetuity. Or as "Chaye Sarah" puts it: "So the field of Ephron, which was Machpelah, which was before Mamre, the field and the cave which was therein, and all the trees that were in the field, that were in all the border thereof round about, were made sure unto Abraham for a possession in the presence of the children Heth, before all that went in the gate of his city."
Later, as Abraham lies dying, he settles his estate. To the children of his concubines, he leaves generous parting gifts, but his remaining wealth and real estate - the Cave of Machpelah - he gives it all to his son Isaac. And only to Isaac. Eventually, the cave will become the burial ground of all three Jewish Patriarchs -Abraham, Isaac and Jacob - and three Matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca and Leah.
Thus, Jewish rights and claims to the Promised Land date back almost 4,000 years. From that historical moment on, Jews are as much settlers as wanderers. They become firmly anchored in the land. Abraham's purchase of the Cave of Machpelah is the first real estate transaction in the Bible. It makes concrete God's earlier promise to Abraham: "Get thee...unto the land that I will show thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great, and be thou a blessing " - the three main pillars of Zionism - a quest for a specific, well-identified piece of land, a quest for nationhood on this land, and a quest to create an exemplary society - "Be thou a blessing - a light unto the nations."
Theodor Herzl is rightly recognized as the founder of Zionism in modern times. But when it comes to all of history, the honor definitely belongs to Abraham.
Because with the acquisition of the Cave of Machpelah, Abraham seals an unbroken covenant for his right - and his descendants' rights - to a specific piece of land. Of all faiths, Judaism preeminently is a land-based religion. It's no coincidence that the Torah often reads like a geography text. Without the land, Judaism loses all significance. And by their virtually unbroken presence in the land for several thousand years, Jews have - generation after generation - kept alive their religious, historic and legal claims to the land.
Why focus on this biblical history? Because Palestinians today are engaged in a full-blown propaganda campaign which turns history on its head. It depicts Palestinians as an indigenous presence in the land, while Jews are seen as belated 19th Century imperialist newcomers escaping prosecution in Europe and taking over land that belongs to the Arabs. What "Chaye Sarah" makes crystal-clear is that this Palestinian history is utterly bogus. Jews have resided in the land for four millennia. It's Palestinians who are belated newcomers.
With Abraham's payment of 400 shekels, Jews cemented their permanent deed to the land. When Palestinians and their supporters try to rewrite history, the best antidote is to trot out "Chaye Sarah."
Jews acquired the land, fair and square. They also have a biblical receipt of ownership. It's titled "Chaye Sarah."
Leo Rennert is a former White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief of McClatchy Newspapers.