Rabbi Mordechai Kaminetzky
Let’s talk business. After all, Abraham did.
This week’s portion opens as a grieving Abraham comes to eulogize, cry for, and bury his beloved wife of many decades, Sarah. Abraham approaches the Hittite family of Efron and the first recorded acquisition in the Torah is thus detailed. In fact, so much credence is given to the technicalities of this transaction that the Talmud derives quite a bit of commerce law from it. I would like to analyze the human side of the deal. Let us examine the story.
Abraham approaches the children of Heth to purchase land in which to bury Sarah. He declares to them, “I am an alien and a resident. Please grant me an estate for a burial site with you that I may bury my dead from before me.” (Genesis 23: 4) The children of Heth answered Abraham in a very warm and enthusiastic manner. They say to him: “My lord, you are a prince of G-d in our midst: In the choicest of our burial places bury your dead, no one will withhold his burial place from you. from burying your dead.” Abraham requests to be presented to Ephron the son of Zohar. He appeals, “let him grant me the cave which is his on the edge of his field for its full price in your midst, as an estate for a burial site.” Ephron responded to Abraham in full view and earshot “of all the children of Heth.” He openly declares, “No, my lord, listen carefully! I have given you the field, and as for the cave I have given it to you in front of all the children of Heth!” (Ibid:11)
Abraham responds graciously. “I would truly like to pay for the field and the cave in order to bury my dead.”
Immediately there is a change of direction. Ephron declares, “land worth 400 silver shekels in negotiable currency, between me and you — what is it? Bury your dead.” Abraham pays the full amount and buries Sarah.
It’s hard to help but notice an extreme change in attitude. At first, Ephron, speaking for all the children of Heth to hear, grandstands as if he was giving the land and cave as a magnanimous gift to Abraham. As soon as the conversation shifts more intimately, he changes his tune. When the moment of truth draws near, he uses the words “between me and you” and his altruism disappears. Suddenly he sets a price of 400 silver coins for the property and he calls that sum, “no big deal!” In truth, the Talmud in Bava Metzia evaluates “negotiable currency” as 2500 times the value of a regular silver shekel. Thus Abraham paid 1 million silver pieces for land that was originally, publicly “offered” as a gift!
The local Russian party-leader was being interviewed by a naive reporter who was reporting on the virtues of the communist system. “Sir,” went the first question, “what would you do if you were to own two homes?” The official beamed as he responded with a broad smile, “I’d give one of them away to my comrades!” “And what would you do if you owned two automobiles?” Again the answer was given, with a smug certainty, “I would give one of the cars to my comrades!” “And the final question,” the reporter asked innocently, what would you do if you owned two overcoats?” The official began to stammer and stutter. “What’s the matter?” asked the reporter. The official quietly mumbled under his breath, “you shouldn’t ask that to me! You see, I own two coats!”
People have a tendency to make generous offers for all to hear. However, when it comes to actually following through, their attitude changes. The conversation shifts “between me and you” and only an Abraham is there to hear it. What was once offered as a generous gift receives a hefty price-tag of 400 silver shekel. Efron is forever known as the big talker who reneges on his offer as he capitalizes on Abraham’s graciousness. The flaw was not only in Efron’s character, but in the setting that accompanied it. A public commitment or announcement tends to change dramatically when it becomes just — between you and me!