Rabbi Bernard Fox
"Listen to us, master. A prince of the L-rd you are among us. In the best of our burial places, bury your dead. No man from among us will prevent you from burying your dead. " (Beresheit 23:6)
The opening passages of Parshat Chayay Sara describe Avraham's successful efforts to purchase a burial place for his wife, Sara, in the Land of Israel. Nachmanides is troubled by the inclusion of a detailed description of this episode in the Chumash. G-d chose every word of the Chumash carefully. Every word, indeed every letter, must teach a lesson. Why is an entire chapter devoted to these events?
Nachmanides explains that this incident illustrates the fulfillment of one of G-d's promises to Avraham. In Avraham's first prophecy, G-d promised him that, although he would be traveling to a new land, he would achieve fame and earn the respect of the inhabitants. Avraham's mission was to reintroduce to humanity the worship of the Almighty. Consequently, his influence and stature among the inhabitants of his new home was crucial to his success.
Nachmanides goes on to explain that, this chapter demonstrates that, in his lifetime, his neighbors regarded Avraham as a prince of the Almighty, and ruler over the land. Throughout the chapter, the citizens of the city treat Avraham with the respect appropriate for a king and a prophet. They assure him that he may bury Sara wherever he wishes. Avraham chooses the Ma’arat HaMachpayla – the Cave of Machpayla – in Hevron. The owner, Efron, offers Avraham the property as a gift. Only at Avraham's insistence does Efron agree to accept any compensation. These attitudes demonstrate the fulfillment of the Almighty's initial promise to Avraham.
“My master, hear me. Between me and you, of what significance is a portion of land worth four hundred silver shekel? Bury your dead.” (Beresheit 23:15)
Efron owns the Ma’arat HaMachpayla. Avraham asks Efron to sell him the cave. Efron replies that he will give Avraham the cave and does not seek payment. Avraham is not satisfied and insists upon paying Efron. In our pasuk, Efron responds that the cave and the field upon which it is situated are of little consequence. Efron explains that he and Avraham are wealthy individuals. There is no reason to enter into a dispute over a portion of land worth four hundred silver shekel. Avraham immediately weighs out four hundred shekel and delivers the payment. Payment is made in front of the townspeople. The Chumash also mentions that Avraham paid Efron with coins that were readily negotiable currency.
Our Sages criticize Efron for his behavior. He offered to deliver the field to Avraham as a gift. But he accepted a payment of four hundred shekel! At first this criticism seems unfair. Efron never asked Avraham for payment. Avraham insisted on payment. Efron mentioned the price of four hundred shekel only in passing. He never demanded this payment.
To fully understand our Sages’ analysis of Efron, we must carefully consider another pasuk. Efron tells Avraham that a field valued at four hundred shekel is of little consequence. The Chumash then comments that “Avraham heard Efron” and weighed out the payment. It is odd that Avraham’s payment is associated with “hearing” Efron. Efron had refused payment. It would seem that Avraham, in insisting on paying for the field, was not hearing Efron!
Sforno explains that Avraham heard and agreed to Efron’s estimate of the field’s value. This interpretation is supported by Targum Unkelus. Rabbaynu Nissim offers another explanation. He comments that Avraham heard Efron’s response and detected a hidden meaning. He heard more than Efron’s literal response. He heard a deeper message. What was this implicit message?
Avraham realized that there was no reason for Efron to specify the value of the land, in his response. He should have merely indicated that the land was of little significance. The indication of a specific value was very meaningful to Avraham. He understood this to imply that Efron was very aware of the value and ambivalent about giving the land.
Based upon this analysis, Rabbaynu Nissim explains Avraham’s subsequent actions. Avraham was suspicious of Efron’s intentions. He therefore met Efron’s price in the presence of the townspeople. They had heard Efron specify the value and would now see Avraham meet this price. Avraham paid Efron in negotiable currency. He did not want to leave Efron any opportunity to question the value of the coins.
“And the girl, to whom I shall say, “Tip your jug and I will drink,” and she will say, “Drink and I will also water your camels,” she is the one you have designated for your servant Yitzchak. And through her I will know that you have done kindness with my master.” (Bereshit 24:13)
Avraham send his servant Eliezer to Aram Naharayim. There, he is to find a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer arrives at Aram Naharayim and prepares to fulfill his mission. He must find a wife who is appropriate for Yitzchak. He devises a test. He will stand by the town’s well. The girls of the town will come to draw water for their families. Eliezer will approach each. He will ask each to share some water with him. The girl that offers him water and also offers to water his camels will be destined to be Yitzchak’s wife.
The Talmud discusses this incident in Tractate Chullin. The Talmud explains that it is prohibited to act on the basis of omens. For example, a person drops his staff. He considers this to be an ill omen and stays in his house all day. A person also may not establish signs, which will serve as omens. The person predefines a certain “test” as meaningful. The test is then performed. The person acts on the basis of the outcome. The Talmud offers an example of this type of behavior. The example given by the Talmud is the test devised by Eliezer to choose a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer devised a test. He assumed the outcome to be meaningful. He then acted on the basis of the outcome. Maimonides explains that these behaviors are superstitious. We are commanded to guide our lives by wisdom. Therefore, these behaviors are prohibited.
How is it possible that Eliezer the servant of Avraham violated this prohibition? It is also remarkable that Hashem would help Eliezer in his superstitious behavior!
Rabbaynu Nissin, in his commentary on Tractate Chullin, answers this question. He explains that the Talmud does not intend to accuse Eliezer of acting foolishly. Eliezer’s test did not involve superstition. He realized that Yitzchak’s wife should embody kindness. He devised a test, which would identify essential behaviors and attitudes. This test was based on wisdom not superstition.
What was the Talmud’s purpose in using Eliezer’s test as an example of superstitious behavior? The Talmud is explaining that the prohibition of relying on omens is not violated until the person actually acts upon the omen. In order to violate the prohibition, the person must treat the foolish omen with the certainty of Eliezer. This defines superstitious behavior. The fool treats an arbitrary sign as if it were a scientific indication of reality. The fool acts with the certainty appropriate for a meaningful test – such as the one devised by Eliezer.
“And Lavan and Betuel answered. And they said, “The thing has gone forth from Hashem. We cannot say to you bad or good.” (Beresheit 24:50)
Avraham sends Eliezer to Aram Naharayim. He is to seek a wife for Yitzchak. Eliezer arrives at the town. He devises a test designed to measure the charity and character of the women of the town. The young woman who will offer water to him and his camels will prove herself sensitive and kind. She is the appropriate wife for Yitzchak.
The moment Eliezer designs his test Rivka appears. She satisfies and surpasses the qualifications Eliezer seeks. Furthermore, she is a member of Avraham’s extended family. Eliezer is invited to the home of Rivka’s father Betuel. There, Eliezer requests that Rivka be given to Yitzchak as a wife.
Lavan and Betuel are idol worshippers. Furthermore, the Chumash later indicates that Rivka’s family was not completely happy with the match. Yet, after hearing Eliezer’s account they immediately agree to the marriage and acknowledge that Hashem made the match. How did Eliezer so impress Lavan and Betuel that they immediately acquiesced to the marriage and recognized the Almighty’s involvement?
There is a useful hint contained in the Chumash. The Chumash relates in detail Eliezer’s account, to Lavan and Betuel, of his experiences. The design of the test and the outcome are recounted completely. It is odd that the Chumash did not merely summarize Eliezer’s remarks.
The Chumash is stressing that Eliezer retold the events exactly as they occurred. There was no embellishment. Lavan and Betuel were overwhelmed by these events. Despite their prejudices against giving up their sister, they agreed to deliver her immediately to Eliezer. The reaction of Lavan and Betuel provides eloquent evidence that Providence was at work. Even two idol worshipers could not deny that the Almighty influenced these events. They recognized that no other explanation could account for the immediate success achieved by Eliezer.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 23:19.
 Mesechet Baba Metzia 87a.
 Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 23:16.
 Mesechet Sanhedrin 65b.
 Mesechet Chullin 95b.
 Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:16.
 Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven (Ran), Chidushai HaRan, Mesechet Chullin 95b.