By Rabbi Yoseph Kahanov Jax, Fl.
After an impassioned lecture on the virtues of patriotism and the Marxist system of government, a local communist party leader was asked: "Sir, what would you do if you were to own two houses?"
Barely able to contain his proud grin, the official cried out, "Why, of course I would give one away to my comrades!"
"And what would you do if you were to own a second automobile?"
Again the politician declared with smug determination, "Naturally I would give-up one to the people!"
Finally the leader was asked: "And what if you happened to possess two pair of shoes?"
This time the official seemed caught off guard. He began to hem and haw – stammering and stuttering.
When asked later by a close underling, why he did not hesitate to part with a second house or automobile, which are rather valuable items, yet could not say for certain that he would give-up a measly pair of shoes, his response was remarkably simple: "You see, I do not own a second house and probably never will, the same is true of an automobile. But a second pair of shoes? That I do own; and I’m not inclined to give it up!"
“Say a little and do much” – Avot 1:15
Not all moments are equal in life. At times we are presented a “Golden opportunity,” – a chance to transcend our self and transform our legacy in a single instant; through a single act. This is the meaning of the Talmudic statement: “Rebbe cried out and said: ‘There are those who acquire the next world only after many years, and those who acquire the next world in a single instant!’” (Talmud Avodah Zarah 17a). The same is obviously true visa versa.
Shameful as it is to squander one of life’s aforementioned precious moments of opportunity, it’s not uncommon for mortal man to do just that. This in fact, is the legacy of a man named “Ephron,” as related in the opening verses of this week’s legendary Parsha – Chayei Sarah.
It all began during a particularly sad and stressful period in the life our patriarch Avraham – the death of his wife of many decades. Seeking to eulogize and bury his beloved wife Sarah, a grieving Avraham crosses paths with a little known figure by the name of Ephron the Chiti.
Avraham, according to the narrative, appears in Chevron and approaches the Chittite family of Ephron. He pleads to purchase a small burial plot. "Please grant me an estate for a burial site that I may bury my dead from before me."
The children of Cheth respond warmly: "My lord, you are a prince of G-d in our midst. In the choicest of our burial places bury your dead. No one will withhold his burial place from you, from burying your dead." Avraham requested to be introduced to Ephron, the son of Tzochar, saying: "Let him grant me the cave which is on the edge of his field in your midst, for its full price, as an estate for the burial site."
By virtue of this sudden twist of fate, Ephron is unexpectedly and unpredictably thrust into the limelight – he is catapulted onto center stage – into the life of one of the most legendary and revered Biblical personalities. This was Ephron’s ticket to greatness and fame – his chance to earn for himself a respectable place in the all time best seller – the holy Bible. It was his lucky moment to go down in history as a man who rose to the occasion. And for a minute it seemed like he would actually seize the opportunity.
As the narrative continues, Ephron responds to Avraham in full view of the children of Cheth, declaring: "No my lord, listen carefully, I have ‘given’ you the field, and as for the cave, I have ‘given’ it to you in front of all the children of Cheth!" In deference to the towering persona standing before him, he desires no compensation; he expresses his unequivocal intention to gift the property to his saintly visitor.
But then, in response to Avraham’s gracious reply: "I would truly prefer to pay for the field and the cave in order to bury my dead,” he does a compete one eighty. Upon hearing those words; upon picturing the silver coins in Avraham’s sack, there is a drastic change of heart on the part of Ephron – the greed and distortion quickly takes over.
"The land worth is 400 silver Shekels in negotiable currency!” he suddenly cries out. “Between me and you what is it? – go ahead bury your dead." After having bequeathed the land to Avraham a as a complete gift, he now demands top dollar. He cannot resist the urge to cash-in, even if it means taking advantage of a grieving widower in his moment of sorrow, be it commoner or prince.
The little known tomb salesman from Chevron and his sly antics have not escaped the perceptive eye of Torah and its commentators. The Talmudic masters have pegged this cunning shark – and those who follow in his fast-talking ways – to the tee. Here’s how the Talmud describes Ephron’s dubious character: "The wicked promise much, but even a little they don’t do."
The Talmud proceeds to contrast the behavior of Ephron and his ilk with that of Avraham and his like: "It is written, 'and I will fetch a morsel of bread;' but it is also written, 'and Avraham ran unto the herd.' Said R. Eleazar: 'This teaches that righteous men promise little and perform much, whereas the wicked promise much and do not perform even a little. Whence do we know this, from Ephron. First it is written, 'the land is worth four hundred shekels of silver;' but subsequently, 'and Avraham hearkened unto Ephron; and Avraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the audience of the sons of Cheth, four hundred shekels of silver, current money with the merchant [negotiable currency];’ indicating that Ephron refused to accept anything but ‘centenaria.'" (Baba Mezi'a 87a).
The Talmud goes on to evaluate "centenaria," or negotiable currency, as 2,500 times the value of standard silver shekel. Thus Avraham forked over a small fortune – one million silver pieces to be exact, for a small portion of land that was publicly offered to him as a gift.
In fact, Rashi is quick to point out that while throughout the chapter Ephron's name is spelled with a Vav, after the money changed hands the Vav is omitted. Thereby the Torah implies that his stature was diminished. He started out by making grandiose gestures of a gift, but soon revealed himself as a greedy man who extorted far more than the property was worth – for in the end he demanded large shekels – negotiable currency – which were known as centenaria.
Avraham proceeds to pay the inflated fee and bury his wife Sarah, while Ephron avariciously pockets the exorbitant recompense. Ephron has by now turned his proverbial fifteen minutes of fame into fifteen minutes of shame. Instead of going down in the annals of history as a man of his word – a man of honor – he is remembered instead as a man of empty promises and greed.
While Ephron may have intended to deceive the whole world with his flamboyant gestures, he has in reality fooled no one but himself. He will forever be remembered as a big talker who reneged on his word whilst capitalizing on the tragedy of another human being.
He has earned for himself an eternal spot amongst the infamous and “Wicked,” as asserted in the aforementioned Talmudic passage: "The wicked promise much but even a little they don’t do." This is hardly the esteem and dignity the big shooter sought for himself. The lesson of this narrative, vis-à-vis Ephron, is applicable to all mankind, in each time and place.
There is a Yiddish proverb that says: "To promise and to love cost no money." People have a tendency to make grandiose offers for all to hear. However, when it comes to follow through, their attitude changes – there is nobody home. What was publicly proclaimed a generous gift, suddenly ("just between you and me") acquires a hefty price tag.
We can all learn on Ephron's dime that talk is cheap and can really make you look cheap. The wisdom of our sages once again proves priceless: “Say little and do much!"
Or as they say in America: put your money where your mouth is!