Parashat Hayyei Sarah
Our Torah portion opens with the death of Sarah and with Abraham’s efforts to bring her to burial. To do this he must enter into negotiations with the local people, the Hittites, so as to acquire a plot of land in which to inter Sarah. Readers have noticed that the Torah is very terse in reporting Abraham’s emotional expressions regarding his loss. But it goes to much greater length to detail the in’s-and-out’s of the negotiation for the land. (See a discussion on this issue in my article on a text of the Zohar on this story:
What is the point of relating all the details of this business transaction? We may derive some insight by paying attention to at least one of those details. After Abraham starts the conversation by asking to buy a burial plot, the Hittites respond: “Listen to us, master…” (Gen. 23:6) By themselves these words are unremarkable. But they set up a recurring motif in the discussion. Abraham’s response includes: “Listen to me…” (v. 8) Then Efron, the potential seller, begins his words by saying, “No, my master, listen to me…” (v. 11) Then, again, he says: “But you, please, if you would but listen to me…” (v. 13) and “My master, listen to me…” (v. 15) Finally, the Torah reports: “And Abraham listened to Efron…” (v. 16)
Again and again, in what most commentators see as a very formalized and artificial give-and-take between Abraham and the locals, the appeal is made for the other side to “listen to me.” Did they say this because they were really worried that the other party was not listening? Rather, this may have been a mandatory phrase, always used by buyers and sellers, with no deeper intention meant by those words.
Yet, the very decision – some time back in the hoary past – that demanded this usage, even between total strangers, seems so express the sense that this very element of simply listening to one another is often lost in efficient, business-like transactions. What need is there to listen when each party knows exactly what the steps of the negotiation require? But, insists this ancient rule of negotiating etiquette, listening is still needed! This formal rule is a quiet but stubborn resistance and protest against the dehumanizing effect of a strictly transactional approach to living. It reminds us that, even if it will not happen during this efficient meeting – and perhaps that is exactly why we must be reminded in the very middle of the negotiations – we must find ways – even if it is at another time, in another place – to listen to each other.
The Torah does not report what Abraham said in his mournful eulogy for his wife, Sarah. Perhaps there is nothing to report because there was no one there to listen to him.
Rabbi David Greenstein
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Photo: Collage of Commercial Stock Photos
Thank you to John Lasiter for suggesting the title and selecting an image for this Torah Sparks – Rabbi Greenstein