In Judaism we revere the Cave of Machpelah – the place where so many patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. We consider it hallowed ground, by virtue of the people buried there.
In the text itself, the place is merely a cave in a field. What makes it special?
Perhaps the answer is that this is the place where Sarah chose to live, and to die. And it is the place where Avraham honored her choice, and showed his respect for her by paying whatever it cost to honor her there, in the eyes of all around him.
In other words, Avraham’s actions made the cave holy. And he did it by publicly honoring his wife, putting her first, at the center of his world.
This is, by way of contrast, precisely the opposite of the entire story of Sarah’s life. When the story starts, her husband took her along wherever he went; the text never says that “they” went – it was Avraham all the way. Sara comes along for the ride. Sarah followed her husband, Avraham, almost all her life. Everywhere he went, she went, too.
When visitors come, Avraham treats them with enormous dignity and respect, filling his language with kind words and supplications – but he runs into the tent and orders his wife to prepare food without a single extra “please” thrown in for good measure.
Sarah had suffered the indignity of another woman providing a son for her husband – and then, when she decided that the woman and the child had to leave their home, her husband had second-guessed her by asking G-d directly what he should do.
She had been given up (or even sold) to be a wife or concubine to other men on no less than two occasions!
The final event was the capper: her husband took their son to sacrifice him.
We don’t know what happens after that between them: the text says that Avraham returned with his young men (but not Isaac, the almost-sacrificed son) to Beersheva, but it does not mention his wife there. The next we hear of her, she has passed away – but not in Beersheva, but many miles away from Beersheva, or her husband. Instead, she was in an entirely different place, Hebron. And Avraham had to come to where she had died.
What happened between the offering of Isaac and Sarah’s death is not told to us by the text. There are numerous speculations in the midrash, but the text itself seems to suggest that Avraham went back to Beersheba, Isaac to Behar Leharoi, and Sarah is next seen in a third place, Hebron. In other words, the event of the binding of Isaac seems to have fractured the family. And in the fracturing, Sarah does something she had never done before: she left Avraham’s place. The choice of place was hers. It may have been the only time in their lives that she chose where to be.
Avraham does something incredible then. He does not worry about his son, or his place in history. He goes to where Sarah has died, but he does not bring her body back to Beersheva. Instead, he stops there, and offers to buy land in Hebron. Indeed, the Torah tells of us the negotiation in great detail. I think the text may do this for a beautiful reason: it is telling us that Avraham expended every effort to honor his wife and her memory, to do it in public, in the eyes of the world at that time.
In so doing, he was reversing a lifetime of having Sarah take second place – to a concubine and her son, to other powerful men, to guests, and even to their mutual son, Isaac. This was an act of deep consideration and love, one that echoed down through the ages, as the cave which was purchased in marital love is, for Jews, one of the holiest places in the world.
A single act, done absolutely right, can repair all the damage done in a marriage. An act of love creates holiness. The cave was nothing special, until Sarah chose Hebron and Avraham honored her choice.