Sermon for Shabbat Chayey Sarah, Alyith Reform Synagogue, London GB – November 10th 2023 By Rabbi Or Zohar

Written by Writings & Sermons by others — 21 November 2023

Amidst these tragic times, where many people in Israel and Palestine are suffering from the atrocities of war, a different approach to coexistence between neighbors emerges in this week’s Torah portion.


Abraham endeavors to buy a burial ground in Hebron for his recently deceased wife, Sarah. Ephron the Hittite, the owner of the land, responds to his offer: “No, my lord, listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. Before the eyes of the sons of my people, I have given it to you; bury your dead”.


Upon Ephron’s generous offer to give him the burial land and cave for free, Abraham humbly prostrates himself on the ground and says, “But if only you would listen to me. I am giving the money for the field; take it from me, and I will bury my dead there.”


Both Abraham and Ephron exemplify neighborly relations with utmost dignity. They are generous, respectful, and humble towards each other, recognizing and attending to each other’s needs. Moreover, they openly and explicitly affirm this attitude, allowing it to be witnessed by all the people of the land.


As responsible leaders, they understand that their families will share the land for years to come. They view this real estate transaction as an opportunity not only to demonstrate good manners and build trust, but also as an educational moment, ensuring that they pass on their peaceful approach to future generations.


Coincidentally, the name of the city where this noteworthy exchange occurred – ‘Hebron’ in Hebrew and ‘Al Halil’ in Arabic – translates to “friendship.” This serves as a reminder from ancient times to the present day of the sacred legacy that values shared living, humility, and mutual respect among all inhabitants of the land.


Alas! Where has this friendship gone? As the land of Israel is currently experiencing an unprecedented surge in violence, it is regrettable to acknowledge our failure in learning the lesson taught by Abraham and Ephron. For Heaven’s sake – Israel, Hamas, Jews and Arabs –Despite all taking pride in being descendants of Abraham, we seem to have fallen short in fulfilling the spiritual standards set by our common ancestor.


Is there any chance we can learn to overcome fear and the desire for revenge, and transform our neighborly relationships into ones characterized by mutual trust, respect, and hope? If we have not learned this from biblical scripture, perhaps we can find enlightenment in rabbinic literature.

The Talmud, (tractate Avodah Zara3b) teaches us: “God sits and judges the entire world. And once God sees that the world has rendered itself liable to destruction, God arises from the throne of judgment and sits on the throne of mercy”.


Can we, who are created in God’s image, learn to rise from the thrones of our own judgment and instead lead our relationships with others from the blessed perspective of mercy?


Centuries ago, in this very country, a wise man named William Shakespeare eloquently captured this plea through the words of a character in one his plays, a woman named Portia. As she addressed a man known as Shylock, she voiced a similar sentiment: “Therefore, Jew, though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation.”


If we do not learn from our own Jewish biblical and Talmudic sources, perhaps it will be through Shakespeare’s words that our hearts will be transformed. Though it may be difficult for us at this moment, when we strongly believe we deserve more than a “pound of flesh” for our own share of pain and suffering, let us find a place in our hearts where we can act not only with justice, but also with mercy.


While we are overwhelmed by grief, anger, and anxiety for the state of our people worldwide, particularly for those in Israel, as well as to all uninvolved civilians in Gaza and anywhere else in the Middle East, may we draw inspiration from the wisdom of Abraham, Ephron, the Talmud, and William Shakespeare. Additionally, let us be guided by the insight of another English intellectual, Sting, who in a song that reminds us how fragile we all are once wrote, “Nothing comes from violence, and nothing ever could.”


As I conclude this sermon, I would like to invite my partner, Feliza, to join me on the Bima. Together, we will share a musical composition we have created, combining the Jewish healing prayer, El Na Refa Na La, with the words of the ecumenical Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

God, grant me the courage to change the things I can,

God, grant me the wisdom to know the difference.”

Please join us as we pray for healing, recovery, and peace in the land of Israel.