Mrs. Smiles - Chayei Sarah: Ephron - Expression of Earthliness 5771/2010

The main characters in the Torah are those that constitute the pillars of our faith, our patriarchs, matriarchs, and the leaders of our people. Occasionally, the Torah inserts a foil, a character to contrast with one of our own and to serve as a vehicle for teaching us an important lesson. Such a character is Ephron the Hittite for Avraham in Parshat Chayay Sarah.

When Sarah Imenu dies, Avraham seeks out Ephron to buy the plot of land with a cave upon it. He had discovered that the earthly remains of Adam and Chava lie buried there. The negotiations between Avraham and Ephron are recorded in minute detail, with Ephron first offering Avraham his choice of land in which to bury his dead for free and culminating in Ephron’s insinuating an exorbitant price for the cave and the surrounding field. Throughout the negotiations, Ephron’s name is spelled out fully, with every letter and vowel. However, at the culmination of the transaction, his name is spelled in Hebrew shorthand, missing one letter, the “vav”, but with the same vocalization. Our commentators question this change and the reasons for it and Rashi responds by telling us that with his actions, Ephron’s stature was diminished and so the number of letters in his name was also lessened. Nevertheless, we are still left with the question of how he was diminished.

To arrive at some understanding of the dynamics behind this dialogue, it is important to explore the background behind Avraham’s actions. We will note that throughout his life, Avraham never sought to acquire any land for himself, even though Hashem had promised it all to him and to his descendents. Avraham remains a stranger and a sojourner in this land, albeit a much respected one, and he lives on the land of his good friend Mamre. Only now, with the death of his beloved Sarah does he venture to buy land, even at an exorbitant price. However within these seemingly conflicting and ironic actions, Avraham is teaching us and the world, through the Hittites, a profound and valuable lesson.

This world is transient and it did not matter to Avraham where he lived. Avraham understood that our bodies exist to house our eternal souls. When our bodies die, our souls will continue to live on, waiting for the future time when they will reunite with the bodies that housed them and we will be revived. This belief in the immortality of the soul and the resuscitation of the dead was completely alien to Hittite thought, and indeed to the ideology of the entire world of the time. To the Hittites, burial was merely a final honor to the life of the deceased; there was nothing that awaited the deceased after death, there was no eternal soul. With this thought, it didn’t matter where Sarah would be buried. Her grave, along with the graves of all their dead, would be recycled as necessary and could be offered free of charge to a distinguished personage among them. Avraham, however disinterested he was in acquiring land during his life, found it absolutely necessary to purchase a permanent place for the body of his beloved wife to remain while she awaited that time of revival. This concept of spiritual immortality and the resuscitation of the dead, the Or Doniel, citing the Malbim, points out was Avraham’s tenet of faith and lesson to the Hittites. The faith in the ultimate resurrection of the dead required the preservation of the body within the earth from which it was originally formed.

It is this principle of our faith, the immortality of the soul, explains Rabbi Kirzner in The Art of Jewish Prayer, that forms the basis for the members of the family of the deceased and even for strangers to do acts of chesed and give tzedakah for the elevation of a soul when the body attached to that soul can no longer act on its own behalf. The soul had the potential to elevate the entire body and the earth itself from the purely physical to a completely spiritual level. This was man’s purpose on earth, but that potential ended with the person’s death.

Rav Belsky, in Einei Yisroel, continues this trend of thought. Adam Horishon, when he ate from the tree of knowledge, forfeited much of his ability to achieve this lofty purpose and became earthbound. When Hashem decreed death on mankind as a result of this sin, it was not just a physical death but also a spiritual curse. The decree of “you are dust and to dust you shall return” gave dominance to the earthly, physical aspect of man over the spiritual aspect because Adam had succumbed to the physical attraction of the fruit over the Divine command. Upon his physical death, Adam’s body returned to the dust from which it was formed by being buried in Meorat Hamachpelah.

Rav Belsky continues. Who owned this cave? Ephron, whose very name means dust. And Avraham is the father of the new world order that should have been Adam’s legacy. Avraham takes upon himself the mission of repairing that which Adam so severely damaged. Each time he bows to the Hittites, the am haareetz, the earthbound people, or to Ephron, he rises up symbolically clutching a handful of earth, elevating the earth which Adam’s action had cursed.  By buying this land from people whose entire life was punctuated by the physical, and burying Sarah, the daughter of the King, in this place, he elevated this earth again to a place of holiness.

What makes Ephron this vile character whose name suits him? The gravitational pull of the dust and the earth drags him down, consumes him with earthiness and physicality so there is no room for Godliness. Such a man is only a taker, explains the Sifsei Chaim citing the Maharal, only a receiver from others. As egocentric as he is, he cannot give of himself to others to influence them positively. This is the major contrast between Ephron and Avraham. Avraham was able to influence so many others because he was the opposite of Ephron and the Hittites, he was a giver, a man committed to performing chesed, uninterested in personal, physical aggrandizement. Ephron was not interested only in making an honest profit and benefitting himself. He wanted to bring Avraham down in the process. He wanted to diminish Avraham, but ended up being diminished himself.

Rabbi Roberts, in Through the Prism of Torah, explains how Ephron’s “stingy eye” (ra ayin = Ephron without the “vav” in numerology) could have transformed and elevated himself. Had he fought the gravitational pull of his greed and continued to offer Avraham the cave without charge, as he had originally offered, he would have been remembered as a partner with Avraham in elevating the earth to spiritual heights. He would have retained the letter “vav” in his name which has the grammatical ability to transform something into its opposite, as it does the past tense to the future tense. By allowing his earthiness and greed to remain dominant, Ephron gave up this possibility and lost that letter of his name which would have signified the change.

In contrast, Avraham always rose above earthly concerns. He was selfless in his devotion to serving others. In spite of the pain of his circumcision, he ran to greet strangers and invite them to his tent. He ran to get the calves to feed them, and in so doing actually discovered the cave in which Adam and Chava were buried and which he would later buy from Ephron. Even after he bought the cave, he did not delegate the work of burying Sarah to others, but he himself ran to do this final chesed.

If one wants to have the ability to help transform the world, one cannot be glued to the earth, or to one’s chair in idleness. One must rise up, run to do chesed and to carry out His will. We each have the ability to transform the world with our actions. Ephron  gave up his vav. We, with Hashem’s help, must strive to retain it, one action and revolt against indolence and lethargy at a time.

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

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