Let us examine Abraham’s conduct at the time when he buried Sarah. Abraham said to the sons of Heth, “I am an alien and a resident among you. Grant me an estate for a burial site” (Genesis 23:4). Concerning this passage, the Maggid of Dubno notes that the verse contains a contradiction: If he was an alien, then he could not have been a resident, and if he was a resident, then he could not have been an alien. What did Abraham mean by saying, “an alien and a resident”? Rashi explains: “I am an alien from another land and I have settled among you.”
It seems that Abraham wanted to convey to the sons of Heth (note that the word heth in Hebrew means “sinner”) that all those who commit sins without any regret will die without repenting. They sin without remorse solely because they believe that they will inhabit this world forever. They do not give thought to the fact that one day they will die, nor do not see themselves as temporary residents who live in this world for only a set period of time. If they felt that they were temporary residents, that each day of their life could be their last, it is certain that they would want to vigorously correct their behavior and repent of their sins. That is the meaning of toshav (resident), which also entails the notion of teshuvah (repentance). Abraham said to the sons of Heth: “I am but an alien, a resident among you, and do you know why Sarah was always virtuous, even among the wicked in Haran? It was because she never considered this world as an eternal dwelling place, but rather as a temporary residence. Sarah only saw herself as an alien in this world, which afforded her protection from the sins of the land.” The verse alludes to this by its brief expression, for the words ger vetoshav imachem (an alien and a resident among you) have the same numerical value, including the number of words and letters in the expression itself, as the words Sarah tzaddeket (Sarah is righteous).
Each person must not view himself as a resident. This will allow him to more easily conquer the evil inclination, for it always bothers those who settle down somewhere. Such was the case with Jacob, who planned on settling “in the land of his father’s sojournings” (Genesis 37:1) and on living in complete tranquility. In other words, he wanted to feel like a resident in a land where Isaac was but an alien. In order to save him from this mistaken belief and to make him realize that his father was in fact but an alien, Jacob was struck by the tragedy of Joseph.
On the other hand, people who are still in exile and travel from one place to another already live a difficult life. G-d does not overwhelm them with troubles that they are incapable of tolerating.
This is what Abraham conveyed to the sons of Heth: “Even though I am a resident of this land, since G-d gave it to me, I live my life as an alien and I have learned nothing from you, sons of Heth.” Without a doubt, it requires exceptional determination to live as an alien in a place that belongs to you! Moreover, Abraham asked the sons of Heth for a burial place for Sarah, as he said to them: “Grant me an estate for a burial site” (Genesis 23:4). Abraham reprimanded them and persuaded them to repent, as was his custom, by showing them just how they behaved. The sons of Heth lived in a land that was not theirs (since it belonged to Abraham). They were foreign aliens, yet they considered themselves as full-fledged residents, something that was audacious on their part. Abraham could have rightly chased them from his land, yet he only conveyed this to them in words. He behaved according to the characteristics of the righteous, for they say: “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” (Perkei Avoth 5:10). As we know, kindness was Abraham’s essential characteristic (Zohar III:302a), and he renounced his rights to a portion of the land, to the point of telling Ephron: “If everything belongs to you, I want to pay you for the burial chamber.”
We can now understand why “each of the Patriarchs contributed something new to the world” (Bava Metzia 87a). Abraham asked that man be given signs of aging, which up to that time did not exist, as it is written: “Now Abraham was old, well on in years” (Genesis 24:1). That was something new. Isaac brought to the world atonement for sins through suffering (Bereshith Rabba 65:4). Jacob brought sickness: “Up to the time of Jacob, no one was ill, as it is written, ‘Someone said to Joseph, “Behold, your father is ill” ’ [Genesis 18:1]” (Bava Metzia 87a). Because of old age, suffering, and sickness, it is possible to rectify the world. How?
Abraham introduced signs of aging into the world. As everyone knows, a man can die at any time when he reaches an advanced age. Hence he inevitably feels like an alien in this world, and it is in this way (when he sees that he is old and that death approaches) that he comes to repent. This is the meaning of ger toshav, an alien who repents.
Isaac introduced the phenomenon of suffering into the world. Even though a man may not yet be old, if he is overcome by suffering, he may remember that he is but an alien living in this world and thus repent. As the Sages said, “The one overtaken by suffering should examine his behavior” (Berachot 5a). He should not wait until he is old before mending his ways, for regrettably he may die before his time. Thus suffering also makes a man recall that he is but an alien in this world, and suffering makes him take to the right path, as the Sages have said: “Only by suffering does Israel take to the right path” (Menachot 53b).
Jacob introduced sickness into the world, for a man may become accustomed to suffering much like a poor person accepts his poverty and the fact that such is his lot in this world. Yet whereas poverty may lead a man to steal or lose his dignity, becoming sick will lead a man to remember that he is but an alien in this world and thus encourage him to return to G-d. The Sages expressly laid out the path to repentance so that people do not remain stuck in their sins, but instead understand what they have to do at all times. King Hezekiah hid his books that dealt with healing, a deed the Sages praised (Pesachim 56). Up to that point, those who were sick would consult these books and be healed of their illness. Hence they did not have to do the essential thing, which is repenting. Our Sages have further said: “All a man’s suffering is for his own good” (Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Rabba 13), which is to say that suffering and illness are beneficial for man when they make him remember that he is but a alien making his way through this world. Such a man with then pray and return to G-d with all his heart, and it is in such a way that he corrects his erroneous impression that he is a permanent resident in the world, that he will not die, or that life has no meaning.
The Patriarchs introduced old age, suffering, and illness into the world in order to teach us that we are but temporary residents here below.