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Perashat Haye Sarah

Home > Rabbi's Weekly Message > Perashat Haye Sarah

Perashat Haye Sarah

Friday, November 14, 2014 Author: Rabbi Daniel Greenwald

This week’s perasha opens with the detailed story of how Abraham Abinu negotiated a burial place for his beloved wife Sarah with the Hittites.  The Midrash describes Ephron, the Hittite leader, as a person who was "nivhal l'hon" – a person who became confused when he saw the amount of money that Abraham Abinu was prepared to give for the burial site. 

Rabbi Y. Frand points out that something does not seem right with that description. When Abraham Abinu approached the Hittites and told them that he needed a burial plot, Ephron himself got up in front of everyone and  graciously offered Abraham Abinu a burial plot at no charge whatsoever. He offered it as an outright present, saying in essence that it would be a privilege to be able to give Abraham Abinu the land. However, Abraham Abinu insisted that he did not want the field as a gift. He wanted to pay for it in full.  Even then, Ephron responded, "What is a mere 400 pieces of silver between friends. You don't have to pay me."   What?!  All of a sudden Ephron mentioned a price! What happened here? Why does Ephron suddenly switch from being a generous person to, 'What is 400 pieces of silver between friends?' 

Rabbi Frand cites Rabbi Simha Zissel, one of the early leaders of the Mussar (ethics) movement, who related  an incident in the life of HaRambam, Maimonides.   A group of wise men approached the sage and told him that they could change the nature of a cat, training it to be as gracious and polite as a human being, making the cat into an obedient butler. HaRambam argued that it was impossible to change the nature of a cat. The group of 'wise men' worked for weeks training a cat. They dressed the cat up in a little suit and trained it to walk on its hind legs and when people came into the room, the cat would escort them to their seats. They trained the cat to hold a little cup and to serve the people when they got to their seats. The cat acted just like a butler!  Then they invited HaRambam to show him their accomplishment and to prove to him that it is indeed possible to train an animal to be just like a human being! 

The cat greeted HaRambam and guided him to his seat. When HaRambam got to his seat he removed a box from his pocket. In the box was a little mouse. He dropped the mouse on the floor. The cat suddenly forgot that it was a butler, and like most cats do, he ran after the mouse. HaRambam turned to the wise men and said, "A cat is a cat and will always be a cat!" 

Rabbi Simha Zissel concluded that unless a human being learns to train himself, he can end up just like a cat. There are times when he may act kind and gracious and polite, but as soon as his button gets pressed and he is no longer in control, he can lose it all just like the mouse. 

When Abraham Abinu said to Ephron: "I am prepared to give money for the field; take it from me", he pushed Ephron's button. Reaching into his pocket and taking out 400 shekels of silver was equivalent to HaRambam's dropping the mouse in front of the cat. Eprhon lost it right there. The jingle and smell of the money was all he needed to throw off his generosity and reveal his true nature as a greedy real estate agent. 

Every one of us has his own 'mouse' - something that can reduce us from being a human being to just a two-legged animal. A cat cannot become a person, no matter how well-trained he may be. But a person can learn to control himself. That, in fact, says Rabbi Frand, is man's spiritual task in this world. The challenge of man is to not 'lose it' when confronted by all the potential lusts of this world. Our goal is to be a man, and not a mouse.

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