In trying to obtain a piece of land to bury Sara, Avraham gets heavily involved in lengthy negotiations (Bereshith, chapter 23). After he has turned to the children of Chet, he asks them to speak to Efron the son of Tzohar who is the owner of the Cave of Machpela. It is in this cave that he would like to bury his dear wife Sara.
Efron first gives the impression that he wants to give the land to Avraham without any monetary compensation. But after Avraham refuses to accept this offer, Efron states that in that case he would like to receive 400 shekels*, an abnormally high sum of money with the sarcastic comment that this price is of no significance “between me and you.” (23:15) Avraham hands him this money and consequently buries Sara.
The commentators carefully examined every part of these negotiations and suggested a great amount of explanations in order to understand what they were all about. There are those who suggest that Avraham refused to receive this piece of land as a gift because he realized that the children of Chet wanted him and his family to become part of their culture, in other words to assimilate and become one of them.
By giving the land to him instead of selling it, they would draw him in as “one of the family” and all distinction between him and them would be blurred.
Avraham on the other hand wanted to make it abundantly clear that he needed to stay a “stranger” and secure a piece of land in which only the Hebrews would be buried. Any attempt to assimilate him into the culture of the children of Chet was unacceptable.
Others maintain that Avraham wanted to impress on all those present that one day, in the messianic times, the dead will arise (techiyath hametim) and that therefore a burial place should hold the bones of the deceased for eternity. Such a place could therefore never be touched or ploughed. Efron does not believe in all of this and suggests that he could easily give the land to him since after several years they would clean the land of all the old bones and the land could again be used for agriculture by the original owner. He, therefore, would not really lose the land by giving it to Avraham for a few years. It was just a temporary arrangement.
Many more solutions have been offered.
There may however be another reason why Avraham was not easily satisfied with the circumstances under which he could become the owner of the land. It may quite well have been Efron’s intentions never to give or sell the cave to Avraham. Avraham realized that all the diplomatic talk of Efron and his generous offer to give him the land without any monetary compensation was nothing else but a clever way to refuse any such deal. Even when Efron actually asked for money, it was never his intention to really sell it to him.
To understand this properly we have to penetrate into Efron’s frame of mind at the time of the negotiations and to understand something about human psychology.
We need to examine Efron’s position before and after the negotiations.
Efron was in all probability an unknown figure before they took place. He did not stand out, did not have a special status in the community of the children of Chet and probably would never have been heard of. Suddenly however he becomes the center of attention. All eyes turn to him and in a matter of moments he realizes that he has become the most important man. He and nobody else has to deal with Avraham, a man who has been called by the children of Chet “the mighty prince among us” (23:6), one of the most impressive people of his days. At that very moment Efron tastes power and realizes that the very notion of Avraham negotiating with him gives him, Efron, a great amount of prestige and standing in his community. (This is not unlike a case where an average person is suddenly asked to come to the White House to have a private audience with the President)
If Efron quickly comes to a settlement with Avraham, he can no longer enjoy this spotlight and will once more return to the status of the common man. The only way he is able to ensure that he stays at the center of attention is by dragging the negotiations out as long as possible. Efron is therefore not at all interested in solving the “problem”. The reverse is true, he wants to complicate the situation as long as possible so as to enjoy his unprecedented prestigious status.
It is for this reason that he asks for an extravagant amount of money. His hope is that Avraham will refuse to pay such a sum and the negotiations will continue for many more days. In fact Efron may have hoped that Avraham would become hostile in which case the dispute concerning his land would take on a completely different position. It would turn into a much larger conflict, many more would hear of it and Efron would become a national figure. (That Avraham is indeed thinking of taking the cave by force is emphasized by Rashi’s commentary: On the words of Avraham when he approaches the children of Chet: “A stranger and a sojourner I am with you” (23:4) he comments: “If you will be kind to me, I will be a stranger (and I will behave), but if not I will be a settler and I will take it legally (by force) since God has promised me this land”)
However to Efron’s great sorrow, Avraham accepts his suggestion and is prepared to pay the full price in cash. Having no other option Efron is forced to accept it. But it undermines his very intention. No longer will he enjoy his earlier position and within hours his “finest hour” will be over. The children of Chet will go home, Avraham buries Sara and Efron’s name will no longer be on the lips of the many. His role as a leader and a “tough” negotiator of “world wide fame” has come to an end. Nothing could be worse.
If this interpretation is correct, we would suggest that the Torah comes to warn us that we should never forget that in confronting our enemies some may not be at all interested in peace even when they call for it. After all, they realize that once they have negotiated a real peace, their names will no longer be on the lips of millions of people, will fall into oblivion and they will have had their day. No longer will they appear on the front page of many international papers or on television. To them that is the greatest curse. Better to keep a conflict going, even at the cost of lives, rather than having to live with the knowledge that one no longer plays any role in world events.
This may not only have been the story of Efron but also of a modern “negotiator” by the name of Yasser Arafat. To overlook this would be a major blunder. Israeli leaders should take notice.
*The famous gentile Bible scholar E. A. Speiser states that for this sum Avraham could have bought a whole village! (Anchor Bible, Genesis, p.171.)