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In negotiating terms with the Hittite residents of Hebron for a place to bury his wife Sara, Abraham introduces himself as being: 'A stranger, and a citizen' (23:4).
Rashi brings a Midrash to explain the terms of Abraham's relationship with the urban residents of Hebron. 'A stranger' - if you wish, I will respect your land as belonging to you, and pay a reasonable price for it. But if not, I will be 'a citizen' - I will take it from you 'according to the law', as G-d promised: 'I will give this land to your children' (12:7).
Yet the Midrash earlier on does not like that outlook. The text recalls the quarrel between Abraham's shepherds and Lot's shepherds, which led to Lot's clan parting company with Abraham's. Rashi quotes a Midrash describing the nature of the contention. The dispute was over the status of the land. Abraham's shepherds did not approve of Lot's shepherds using Canaanite private property as their own pasture-land. Lot's shepherds argued that they were consuming what was their own - as the the land would in due course revert to the wider family, Lot very much being included. For the Canaanites 'were only then' (12:6, Rashi ad hoc) in the Land - they had conquered it from the descendants of Shem, Abraham's ancestors.
Following the Midrash, why was Abraham prepared to take the possession of land 'according to the law', when his own shepherds condemned Lot's workers for doing the same thing?
It depends on how one goes about restoring property believed to be one's own.
Lot's shepherds had no style. They attempted to 'appropriate' their 'stolen property' clumsily, with ineptitude and vandalism. Herds of animals numerous enough for 'the land no longer being sufficient to bear them' (13:6) leave their shabby, scruffy, and frayed remains all over the countryside - including in Lot's case, the property of the Canaanite overlords. It was like a creditor recovering his debt by entering his defaulter's house, raiding the larder, and leaving empty tins and organic garbage all over the house. It hardly promoted respect for the teachings and way of life of Abraham - his mentor, uncle, and current leader.
Abraham's advance was frank, open, initially non-confrontational, and conducive of an assertive leader with a powerful personality. 'I am a stranger' - prepared to pay for the land equitably - in the capacity of a nomadic outsider, as long as the sale of land may be carried out as a civilized business deal. But he dropped his bottom line in a single, non-confrontational word - 'citizen'. That word subtly conveyed the alternative: 'You are all squatters on my territory and I will get it back by any means possible as I successfully defeated the four Great Powers of the time (14:1,15)', with a single, neutral word - citizen.
Using a subtle hint also shows esteem for the other party. It makes him feel good when you convey he is an 'insider' - clever enough to 'get' what's really 'going on'…
Abraham's ways of establishing himself in Canaan raised his standing in the eyes of the locals. Lot's manifestly did not.
Dr. Fishlock, my first Headmaster, put it this way. 'Use the minimum of emphasis you need to correct the behavior of a student'.
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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