After the death of Sarah, Abraham is faced according to Rabbeinu Yona with the tenth test, the acquiring of the cave of Machpela. Even according to all other opinions who state that the binding of Isaac was the last test, Abraham’s encounter with Efron still provided a challenge.
There is a commonly held belief that religious people in general and spiritual giants in particular are other worldly and remote from normal concerns. This encounter which occurs after Abraham has achieved his spiritual zenith disproves this myth.
There are two keys to unlocking what really occurred. The Ramban explains that the city state of Kiryat Arba, the original name for Hebron wherein lay the cave, had a law prohibiting foreigners from being buried within its territory. The second key is the Hebrew word “Es”. The rule is that the occurrence of this word in the Torah hints that something in addition to the subject being spoken of in the context of the verse, is also included. The classic example is the verse “Es hashem elokechoh tirohu”, “You should fear the L-rd your G-d.” The inclusion of the word Es means that somebody else is to be included. The Talmud tells of a Rabbi who explained the significance of every Es until he arrived at this verse. Who could a Jew possibly fear like G-d? With this question he abandoned this project. Along came Rabbi Akiva and completed it explaining that it refers to Talmud Scholars; they are to be feared as one fears G-d. With those two keys we can open the door.
In Chapter 23, verse 3 Abraham petitions the “Bnei Cheis” stating that he is a foreigner and asking for a burial plot, and then “Ve’ekborah meisi milfonai” “And I will bury my dead from before me.” It is significant that even though Abraham knows exactly where he wants to bury Sarah, in his initial approach he does not specify. The Bnei Cheis answer favourably saying in verse 6, “We consider you a prince of G-d, “Kevor esmeisecho” – bury your dead, none of us will refuse you the right “mikvor meisecho” – from burying your dead.
Abraham’s request was unclear. Did he require merely one plot for Sarah or a larger plot for all of his family? They therefore state that both are available, the first offer includes the word Es, not just Sarah but others too, the second offer omits it.
In verse 7 it states that Abraham rises from this encounter and bows down to the Bnei Cheis and to the ordinary people who were observing this encounter (the debate took place at the city’s gates). Abraham knows that if he approaches Efron immediately and requests the cave of Machpela then his request can be simply denied on the basis that it would break the law. The Bnei Cheis who sit at the city gates were the rulers and government. He first secures the support of the legislators before approaching Efron. But Abraham is wise in the ways of the world and society. History is littered with countless examples of people who have passed laws which although binding, lacked popular support. Abraham realises he must also secure the endorsement of the general population. In bowing to them he includes them in the agreement.
In verse 8, he “shows his hand”. “If it is your will “Likvor esmeisi”, to bury my dead then entreat Efron ben Tzochar.” Abraham is stating that his request is for a place to bury his entire family in perpetuity not just his newly deceased wife.
The exchange between Efron and Abraham armed with our keys looks in many ways like two chess grandmasters positioning their pieces. In verse 9, Abraham offers to buy the cave of machpela for a good price. In verse 11, Efron makes his first move. “No my master, listen to me, the field I give to you and the cave within it I give also. “Kevor meisechoh”, bury your dead. There is no ” Kevor Esmeisechoh” here. Efron appears the generous and kind friend but what he is offering is what he knows Abraham does not want, a place to bury only Sarah. One cannot but admire Efron’s chutzpah in offering to give the field as well as the cave. Abraham did not want the field but Efron wanted rid of it.
So in verse 13, Abraham demonstrates that he understands the significance of Efron’s move and replies “Please listen to me, I will give you the money for the field ve’ekboroh esmeisi shomoh-andallmy dead I can bury there”.
In verse 15, Efron makes his final move. “My lord, listen to me, a piece of land, 400 silver coins in value (a vastly overpriced sum) between you and I what’s that ? Ve’es meischoh kevor, and all your dead you can bury there.
Upon hearing this, Abraham concludes the deal paying the exorbitant fee but securing what he needs.
The idea that the greatest, the spiritual giants of Jewish history, were remote from the values and difficulties of this world, is exploded here. Abraham has finished all ten tests. He is, in every sense, a finished product, yet he is perfectly aware of how the world works and how to deal with the world and it’s scoundrels.
When a person goes to a great Rabbi to ask for advice, the Rabbi has to be able to understand, and to empathise with the problem. If the greats are cut off from the everyday worries of ordinary people, then they would not be able to give advice, and the advice, if given, would not work.
Abraham is showing that no matter how great the greatest of Rabbis are, they are still in touch with the realities of this world.
Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein has thrilled audiences from Jerusalem to Manchester and Johannesburg to Los Angeles. There are two reasons for his success. One is a mastery of sources in Jewish philosophy and his understanding of contemporary events. The other is his unique delivery…If you have the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom…do not miss it!Rabbi Professor Dovid Gottlieb