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Chayei Sarah(Genesis 23:1-25:18)

Ephron - Acting on Impulse

In Chayei Sarah we are briefly introduced to the character known as Ephron. His sole 'merit' in being mentioned in the Torah is that he owned the Cave of Machpela that Abraham wanted in order to bury his wife.(1)

The Torah outlines the conversation between the two in their negotiations over this piece of land. Initially Ephron seemed to be most magnanimous in his offer: Abraham only wanted the actual cave itself, but Ephron offered him the field as well as the cave.(2) Moreover, whilst Abraham was willing to pay for the cave, Ephron offered to give it to him as a gift; "No my lord, heed me; I have given you the field, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you." (3) However, Abraham persisted and even showed Ephron the money that he was willing to pay for the land, and suddenly Ephron dramatically changed his approach, saying; "My lord, heed me; Land worth four hundred silver shekels - between me and you - what is it? Bury your dead." (4) The commentaries explain that Ephron was quite blatantly hinting that he did indeed want Abraham to pay this extortionate amount of money for the field and cave. Abraham understood the hint and paid the full amount.

The Ramban is unsure as to whether Ephron's initial magnanimity was genuine or not. However, the Alter of Kelm assumes that he was indeed genuine.(5) That being the case he asks how Ephron could so quickly change from acting with such generosity to being so greedy. He answers with the following incident involving the Rambam. The Rambam had a disagreement with the non-Jewish scholars. They believed that one could train an animal to act with the same level of sophistication as human beings; their natural instinct could be tamed and they could be taught to act like human beings. The Rambam disagreed, arguing that it was impossible to change the nature of an animal.

The scholars sought to prove their point by training a cat to be a waiter, thereby proving that one can change an animal's nature. After several weeks of training, they proudly assembled a large group of people, including the Rambam himself, to view the wonderful spectacle. Indeed the cat lived up to its expectations; it began by setting the tables and when each person came in, the cat approached him and bowed down to him, treating him with great honor. Then the cat went to bring a tray carrying a bottle of wine to serve his guests. Suddenly, the Rambam took out a small box and opened its lid - out jumped a mouse. As soon as the cat saw the mouse, it dropped the tray on the floor and all the wine spilt everywhere, whilst the cat had resigned its waiter duties in order to catch the mouse! Seeing this, everyone admitted that the Rambam was right and that it was impossible to teach a cat to permanently change its nature. All they could do was to teach it to act in a civilized fashion as long as there was no mouse around, but as soon as he saw the mouse all his natural tendencies came flooding back.

The Alter of Kelm said that the same phenomenon took place with regard to Ephron. As long as he did not see the tempting money in front of his eyes, he was able to act in a magnanimous fashion and genuinely intending on giving the field and cave to Avraham. However, as soon as he saw the jingle of the coins his natural love of money came flooding back with the resultant dramatic change of heart. The Alter says that in a split second Ephron changed to a different person and his natural love of money overtook any desire to help the great man he was bartering with.

The example of Ephron teaches a vital lesson. If a person does not genuinely work on his inherent character traits, striving through great effort to change, then he may be able to temporarily bury his natural tendencies, however, when that person's 'mouse' appears, he will immediately fall back into his old ways.

NOTES

1. See Bereishis, Ch.23 for the full account of this story.

2. Ramban, Bereishis, 23:10.

3. Bereishis, 23:11.

4. Bereishis, 23:15.

5. Darchei Mussar, Parshas Chayei Sarah, p. 54.

November 11, 2014

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