Adrian A. Durlester

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Hayyei Sarah 5768

A High Price

Was it anguish? Bereavement? Lack of faith in G"d's promises? Mere practicality?

What was it that drove Avraham to practically beg his Hittite hosts for permission to acquire a small piece of property so he could bury his (first) wife there?

In time honored tradition (yes, even back then, they had such things) the Hittites offer to give Abraham any of their own burial places as a gift. Dancing the well-known dance, Avraham refuses their generosity (slyly desiring to not be beholden to the Hittites) and asks to be allowed to purchase a choice burial spot from the Hittite Ephron.

Ephron does his pre-choreographed step and offers to make a gift of the plot to Avraham. Avraham counters again, insisting he be permitted to purchase the desired plot from Ephron for the "full" price.

Now here's where we need to go back a bit. when Avraham first refuses the generosity of the Hittites, he asks them to assist him in dealing with Ephron. (The Hebrew word is fig'u, from the root fey, gimel, ayin, meaning to plead for someone, to urge.) Avraham knew, before he even started the dance, that Ephron was going to extract a high, perhaps even outrageous price for the burial plot. What Avraham was really seeking from the Hittites was to keep Ephron in line, so the negotiation dance would end in a fair exchange of cash for land.

Alas, despite the obligatory rehearsed "generosity" of the Hittite hosts, they did not intercede on Avraham's behalf with Ephron. Ephron responds to Avraham's now publicly professed insistence on paying whatever price Ephron asks (hoping that Ephron will, under duress from his fellow Hittites, actually be fair) with a ritually phrased response - asking Avraham "why should we let an insignificant and petty amount like 400 shekels of silver come between us. Pay me this, and the land is yours." Not exactly the answer Avraham was hoping for.

400 shekels of silver is an absolutely outrageous price for the time. Even allowing for variations in the definition of a "shekel" as a measure of weight that may have ocurred over the centuries, 400 shekels is easily ten or twenty times the fair value for such a small parcel of land.

It seems, as well, that a precedent was set. For the people Israel, holding on to this land has always come at a high price. The question then arises, when is that price too high?

G"d is silent on what could be considered a lack of faith on Avraham's part. G"d perhaps is coming to understand that human beings often require just a little something tangible to keep them hopeful of intangible goals and futures promised.

And we, after 1900 years of exile and persecution, and fresh on the heels of the most vicious and heinous attempt in history to wipe us out, surely cannot be blamed for our desire to hold on to that same piece of land, now restored to us. Yet once again, the question must be asked, at what price?

Avraham danced the ritual dance of negotiation with the Hittites. He paid an extremely high price for acquiring the burial plot that included the cave of Machpelah. Centuries later, his descendants had to fight to acquire this land, promised to them by G"d? (Had Avraham's faith been greater, might his descendants have simply walked into the land and posessed it, by G"d's grace? We'll never know.)

Today, modern negotiators are engaged in yet another ritual dance. We presume that they, like Avraham and the Hittites, know the steps. (We must ask, first of all, if the negotiating parties are each following a common set of rules and procedures. It's hard to be sure. Only time will tell.)

In this dance, will we once again have to pay too high a price to get exactly what we want? Perhaps we can learn to recognize when the price is too high, and settle for something less than everything we want?

Perhaps we may come to realize that a price paid almost 3 millennia ago no longer gives us the title to which we think we are entitled. Avraham knew that, as a resident alien among the Hittites, he was not actually entitled to own land. He needed their permission, and he needed to pay a fair price. Perhaps we, too, must be willing to pay a fair price to those we dwell among for the right to own some of their land.

It is not my intent with any of these words to be pro-Zionist, or anti-Zionist, or anything similar. I ask only that all sides learn to negotiate in good faith. Abraham may not have wound up with the fairest deal, but he negotiated honestly, and when, in the end, he had to pay what must have seemed an outrageously high price, he kept his word. We must do no less. And by "we" I mean all sides in this dispute.

In the end, none of the land belongs to us - we are but stewards upon G"d's land. All our negotiations and dealings can seem petty when placed in that framework. I pray that someday all the world will come to know this, and we can all live together in peace.

Shabbat Shalom,


©2007 by Adrian A. Durlester

Some other musings on this parasha:

Hayei Sarah  5767-Never Warm?
Chaye Sarah 5766-Semper Vigilans
Chaye Sarah 5763-Life Goes On
Chaye Sarah 5757-The Shabbat That Almost Wasn't
 Chayeh Sarah 5761-L'cha Dodi Likrat Kala
 Chaye Sarah 5762-Priorities, Redundancies And Puzzles

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