Chayei Sarah: Four Hundred Shekels

Somebody vs. Nobody

In Torah portion Chayei Sarah, Sarah dies and Abraham eulogizes and wails over her. He then enters a negotiation with Ephron the Hittite to purchase the Cave of Machpelah and bury his wife there. Ephron is a slippery character who talks a lot while saying little. He first offers to give Abraham the land free of charge, then pivots to vastly overcharging four hundred shekels for it while pretending to be friends: “A piece of land worth four hundred shekels of silver – what is that between you and me?” (Gen. 23:15) During this extended interchange with the lying, manipulative Hittite, Abraham treats Ephron with great respect, bowing to him and accepting his inflated price. 

Rav Moshe Feinstein points out that the two men are opposites. Ephron is a nobody – his name connotes “dust” – but he acts like a big shot. Abraham, whose name means “father of nations,” is one of the greatest men who ever lived, yet he calls himself “dust and ashes.” (Gen. 18:27). Abraham wants to bury his beloved wife in peace, but instead has to negotiate with this manipulative crook. A lesser man would express annoyance, or haggle for a more fair price, but Abraham is an individual of such elevated character that he treats even a scoundrel with kindness and respect.

Image: “The Story of Abraham” (detail), attributed to Piter Coecke van Aelst, c. 1540

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