At the beginning of Parshat Chayei Sara, we are given the opportunity to witness a person undergoing an incredible character transformation. When Abraham initially approaches Ephron the Chittite to acquire from him a burial plot for Sarah, Ephron responds in a manner that suggests that he expected no monetary payment in return.
At the beginning of Parshat Chayei Sarah, we are given the opportunity to witness a person undergoing an incredible character transformation. When Abraham initially approaches Ephron the Chittite to acquire from him a burial plot for Sarah, Ephron responds in a manner that suggests that he expected no monetary payment in return. In fact, he goes so far as to say that "I have given you the field" (Genesis 23:11), implying that the gift was already a done deal. However, after Abraham refuses to accept the land for free, it seems both from Ephron's request of a rather large sum of money and from the actual wording of his request, that Ephron had always expected to be paid. "Land worth four hundred silver shekels; between me and you what is it?" (ibid. 23:14). And not only that, Abraham ends up paying the exorbitant price not with regular coins, but in a special currency called by the Torah "oveir lasocher negotiable currency" which the Talmud identifies as being worth 2,500 times the value of a regular shekel! What happened to Ephron which so suddenly caused him to change from being a kind and generous man willing to assist another person who had just lost his wife, to a greedy miser who extorted a pace much higher than the actual value of the land?
To explain Ephron's behavior, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, head of the great 19th century Lithuanian Yeshiva in KeIm, quoted a story about a debate which occurred between the Rambam (Maimonides, the great medieval Torah scholar and thinker) and the "wise men of the world". The wise men claimed that it was possible to alter the very nature of an animal by teaching it to act in a civilized manner, while the Rambam disagreed. To prove their point, the wise men accepted upon themselves to train a cat to act in a humanized fashion within a given period of time.
When the appointed day arrived, the large crowd gathered was astonished to witness a cat gracefully walking before them like a waiter, setting up tables, spreading tablecloths, and pouring glasses of wine. Everyone was prepared to award victory to the wise men, that is until the Rambam reached into his pocket and pulled out a small mouse which he then threw onto the stage. Suddenly the cat dropped everything, wine spilling and glasses breaking everywhere, so that it could chase the tiny mouse, thereby reverting back to its true animal self. Immediately they turned to the Rambam and acknowledged the truth of his principle: While it may be possible to train an animal to go through particular motions, it will always remain an animal because it is impossible to change its true nature.
A similar phenomenon occurred to Ephron. As long as he had not yet seen the alluring sparkle of precious coins, he was able to behave in an ethical and respectful manner. However, once Abraham offered to pay a fair price for the field (ibid. 23:13), and he opened up his checkbook, Ephron was instantaneously transformed into a different man, just like the cat when it saw the mouse. He heard the enticing call of money and suddenly realized that this was the chance of a lifetime to make a huge profit. He threw away all of his morals and values in order to make a quick buck..
Michael Alterman, a graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is studying at Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore.
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