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 of the vehicles 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 transform our self and 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 precious moments of opportunity; it is sadly not as uncommon as it should be. This in fact, is the legacy of “Ephron,” as related in the opening verses of this week’s Parsha – Chayei Sarah.
It all began during a particularly sad and stressful period in the life our patriarch Avraham – the death of his beloved wife Sarah. Seeking to eulogize and bury his partner of many decades., 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 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. He was on the cusp of earning a place in the holy Bible, the all time best seller. It was his lucky moment to go down in history as a man who rose to the occasion. And for a moment it seemed like he would 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 his visitor’s towering personality and his moment of disstress, he desires no compensation; he expresses his unequivocal intention to gift the property to his saintly caller.
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 these 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 sets in.
“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 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 he saint or not.
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 kind with that of Avraham and the righteous: “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 the land that was originally, 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 offers 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, which were known as centenaria.
Avraham proceeded to pay the inflated fee and bury his wife Sarah, while Ephron avariciously pocketed 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 greed and empty promises.
While Ephron may have intended to deceive the whole world with his big talk and flamboyant gestures, he has in reality fooled no one but himself. He will forever be remembered as a big talker who reneged on his offer 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 respect and dignity the big talker sought for himself. There is a lesson in this Torah narrative for us all.
There is a Yiddish proverb that says: “To promise and to love cost nothing.” People have a tendency to make generous offers for all to hear. However, when it comes to follow through, their attitude somehow changes – there is nobody home. What was publicly offered as 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!