If Only You Would Listen
Some people pre-plan their funerals, right down to locking in today’s price for the whole deal by pre-paying as well. This week’s portion begins with a veritable infomercial for that practice, a demonstration of what can go wrong if you leave the final arrangements for their due time.
At Sarah’s death in the opening verse of our portion, Abraham — elderly, grieving, undoubtedly still reeling from his near-execution of Isaac — has to make funeral arrangements for his wife. Only after protracted negotiations with the Hittite residents of Hebron, and with Efron the Hittite in particular, does Abraham succeed in purchasing the carefully chosen plot in which he wants to inter Sarah’s remains.
Some interpreters have called this a set piece of Levantine marketplace banter. They take the indirection and feinting, the flowery generosity of language alongside the tough refusal to accept Abraham’s offer, as Efron’s Middle Eastern style of driving a hard bargain. There is something to this cultural cliché, but a closer look will reveal that deeper motives are at work. The argumentation is not mere posturing. It represents more than a matter of convention. This dialogue is a clash of principles, resolved only when the partners in negotiation recognize the legitimacy of each other’s claims.
Let’s listen to the way the two sides address each other. In Abraham’s initial request he stresses that he is a resident alien, without land of his own. He asks for a burial place that he will possess as a perpetual landholding (ahuzah). What the Hittite community offers instead is free access to any of their burial sites. Their response, in Genesis 23:6, begins: “Hear us, my lord!… In the choicest of burial sites you may bury your dead….” They are prepared to be generous about providing a gravesite, but they are unwilling to part with ownership of even a tiny portion of their clan’s patrimony.
Abraham’s next statement echoes their language: “If it be then according to your wish that I bury my dead from my presence, hear me and intercede for me with Efron, son of Tzohar….” Abraham points out the minimal impact on Efron’s access to his land that is entailed: “that he may give me title to the cave of Makhpela, that is his, that is at the edge of his field….” And Abraham makes clear that he is ready to pay top dollar in exchange for that cave: “For the full silver-worth let him give me title….” He is adamant that what he needs is not a favor but a legal sale.
Efron now arrives on the scene, armed with the same offer made before, and no more ready to part with property than were his clansmen. His first words are a plea for understanding in terms that are by now familiar: “Not so, my lord. Hear me! The field I give to you….” Efron is willing to extend burial rights to this stranger, but not to reduce the Hittite landholdings, which are his merely in trust for future generations.
By now, a sensitive reader will pick up the recurrent theme: “Listen here!”/ “You listen!”/ “No, you listen!” — and so on. Such verbal leitmotifs are a staple of modern literary interpreters of the Bible, who often repeat insights recorded many centuries earlier in classical midrash. In this case, though, I have been unable to locate any midrash or commentary that spotlights the “hear me” motif before Robert Alter’s 1996 annotated translation of Genesis.
The standoff continues. Genuflecting, Abraham clings to his position: “But if you yourself would only hear me out! I will give the silver-payment for the field….” Both sides have put their offers on the table twice now. Who will blink first?
Efron is insistent: “My lord — hear me! A piece of land worth four hundred silver weight, what is that between me and you! You may bury your dead!” On the surface, his position is unchanged, but Efron has now dropped a broad hint that in fact a financial incentive of a certain size might make some difference.
We might expect this to be the end of the “hear me” motif, but in fact the story’s denouement is capped by its last appearance: “Abraham hearkened to Efron.…” The Levantine haggling school of interpretation would identify what Abraham heard with the sound of silver being counted out, but I submit that what Abraham listened to was something else: Efron’s cry for recognition and his readiness to compromise. Abraham recognized Efron’s concession for what it was: not merely a sale, but a giving-in on principle as well. To break the stalemate, he had obliquely agreed to sell off part of his own ahuzah in order to enable the grieving widower to lay Sarah to rest.
Abraham, opening his ears and his heart as well as his purse, achieved the reconciliation that brought an end to the argument over the Cave of Makhpela in Hebron. Perhaps similar wisdom and grace are needed today to resolve conflicts over land and principle in that same country.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based translator and editor and associate director of Ta Shma: Pluralistic Jewish Learning. He is grateful to Everett Fox, whose translation of “The Five Books of Moses” (Schocken Books) is employed in this commentary.