Shabbat Chayei Sarah: Say What You Mean
This week’s Torah reading has a subtle undercurrent of a theme: Never take what people say at face value!
When Sarah died, Abraham wanted to buy a burial cave for his wife and his family. He went to negotiate with Efron, the Hittite, for his plot of land and the cave in it. They went through the formalities, and Efron said that Abraham could have the cave for nothing. But when he said, “ What is a field that is worth four hundred shekels between you and me,” Abraham understood that by mentioning the price, Efron did indeed want the money. So, Abraham paid him more than the going rate.
In the next chapter, Abraham sends his manager, Eliezer, to his former land and birthplace to find a wife for Isaac. He doesn’t say anything about the quality of the girl, only that his son should not marry a Canaanite. Eliezer, however, understands that Abraham is looking for a girl with the qualities of kindness, humility, and sensitivity. He is the one who comes up with the idea of asking a girl at the well for water when he arrives after his long journey. Rebecca replies by offering to draw water for him and for his camels, too. Only then does he ask her for her name and family.
The Torah notes that Rebecca’s brother, Laban, rushed out aggressively when he heard that a strange man was talking with his sister. But then as soon as he saw the wealthy caravan and the gold that Eliezer had given Rebecca, Laban calmed down and invited Eliezer in, even claiming he had prepared hospitality in advance. They began the negotiations. But then having concluded the deal, when Eliezer wanted to go home, Laban tried to delay things. He was trying to bargain for a higher price. Eliezer had to enlist Rebecca’s support, and only then could he go back home.
All of this makes the point that we should never take things or language at face value, but always try to understand what the person we are talking to or negotiating with really wants. Most people do not mean what they say.
The author is a writer and rabbi, currently living in New York.