Chayei Sarah: What's Money Between Friends?
We aren’t supposed to play favorites, but I think Genesis is the best book in the Bible. There is so much nuance to each of the stories, so much to explore and debate and discover. And the characters in the early weeks of the Torah are so vividly human. They can do great things, terrible things, and far more often, a whole lot of things in the middle.
This week, we read about the death of Sarah (which is why, of course, we call this week’s Torah portion “The Life of Sarah”…) Abraham takes the time he needs to mourn his wife and then gets to work finding a burial plot. He goes to the Hittites and insists on buying a plot of land at the going rate. They try to give him the land for free, but he insists on paying for a cave that he had his eye on. There is a negotiation, and in the end, Abraham pays what some consider to be an exorbitant price, and he buries his wife.
Much as we might wish it weren’t, the Torah is a fundamentally political document. This story is a plot tool to try to establish not only that Abraham took possession of the land he claims because of the promise of God, but ALSO because he paid a more-than-fair price for the land. The text wants to ground the Jewish claim to the Holy Land as an unimpeachable fact, and thus ensure that nobody can come along and claim misbehavior on our part. In our world today, we know that the written text of a faith tradition isn’t exactly the most secure receipt, but it makes sense that the Biblical writers would want to establish significant precedence for their claim of ownership.
What makes this story so fascinating, though, is the way that Ephron the Hittite engages with Abraham during the negotiation for the right to buy the cave. At first, Ephron insists that Abraham take the cave, free of charge. Abraham’s reputation has proceeded him, and Ephron seems to think that being good to God’s Chosen One will be good for himself too in the long run. But what happens next? Abraham insists on paying the fair market value, which leads Ephron to say, “My lord, do hear me; a piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver – what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.” (Gen. 23:15) In the end, he essentially says, “if this is important to you, then go for it.”
There are two ways to see this. The first is that Ephron gets to look like the good guy AND make a profit, winning on both fronts. But I like the other interpretation better. This is a man, a stranger, who sees the need of another human being and is willing to put the issues of money and negotiation aside. “What is $400 between friends,” he seems to say, and lets money be a means to an end, rather than the end itself.
Most of the time, it doesn’t feel like we live in that world. We quantify our success by how much money we have, how much power and influence we an buy, and how well we can amass an empire. But here is a man who is grieving his wife, who is in need of something to do to put his pain into action, and another person is able to see his humanity more significantly than their business deal. What a profound and beautiful lesson for us, especially as we head into the period in modern America where we celebrate our gratitude mere moments before we track sales and doorbusters.
“What is a little money between us?” It is a way for us to share resources, to share kindness, and to care for one another. It is never the end goal in and of itself.