By Rabbi Tzvi Alyesh
As the Torah progresses, we begin to hear more stories about humans interacting not just with God, but with other people and, by extension, the tremendous breadth and capacity that human beings have for kindness and cruelty. The climactic moment of this particular parshah is a story of extortion. Not just extortion, but the taking advantage of a man at his lowest, weakest moment for exorbitant profit.
We begin with the death of Sarah, the holy matriarch, wife to Abraham, father of Isaac, and the archetype of maternity, feminine strength, and Jewish leadership. Abraham decides that there is only one resting place sufficiently holy to rest Sarah’s tomb. The plot of land he finds, today known as Me’arat HaMakhpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in the town of Hebron, was even then known as the burial spot for the first people created directly by God’s hand, Chava and Adam. Indeed, the Zohar, the foundational book in the Jewish mystical practice of kabbalah, refers to the Me’arat HaMakhpela as the entranceway to the Garden of Eden.
Abraham speaks with the Hittite people who ruled the land of Hebron at this time, and receives their assurance that because he is such a highly regarded, well-respected man, he shall be allowed to bury his wife on this holy land without any charge at all. Delighted with this development, Abraham asks further to speak with Ephron, the man who owns the particular plot in which Abraham is most interested. Ephron agrees to the terms that his people had initially previewed to Abraham: Abraham can have the land and bury Sarah free of charge.
Until the day of the burial comes.
When Ephron the Hittite has the most leverage, the most power over our Jewish hero, he changes his mind, and demands exorbitant compensation for use of the land. Now Abraham is faced with a choice: He can do what most human beings would do, say nasty things to Ephron refuse to pay his fee, and ultimately, reap the consequences of those actions (in this case, have to bury Sarah elsewhere) or he can accept that he has been duped, accept the humiliation, pay the very large sum, and continue on with the funeral as planned.
Abraham chooses the latter. Why? Because in the face of tremendous distress, he has the presence of mind to maintain his composure and maintain steady sight of his priorities. After all, had Ephron named this astronomically high sum in the very beginning, Abraham would have paid it for the privilege of burying Sarah so close to the entrance to the Garden of Eden. He would have paid any sum!! It is only the indignity of being extorted that stands in his way. Abraham is able to sublimate that indignation into an absolute conviction that nothing is more important than doing right by the memory of his wife.
It is an important story, and one that reminds us to not be swayed by impulse or be knocked off of our path by temptation, but to always take the time to invest in the self control necessary to keep track of our priorities and commit to them totally.
Shabbat Shalom from your Sloan’s Lake Rabbi!