Shabbat Hayey Sarah: Say what you mean

October 29, 2021 by Jeremy Rosen
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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 the Efron the Hittite for his plot of land and the cave in it. They went through the formalities and flamboyantly 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 listened to him and understood that by mentioning the price Efron did indeed want the money. So, he paid him more than the going rate in full. Clearly, he understood that Efron did not mean what he said.

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 going back specifically to his family or 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 where he arrives after his long journey. The girl he picks out, probably because of her looks and demeanor, 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.

When Eliezer then meets Rebecca’s family and wants to convince them to let him take Rebecca back home to marry Isaac. He tells them that Abraham had insisted he go back to his family specifically. Using his initiative and language to make his point.

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, he calmed down and invited him in, even claiming he had prepared hospitality in advance. And they began the negotiations. But then having concluded the deal, when Eliezer wanted to go home, Laban tries 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 rather than just what he says.

Genesis Chapter 23-25:18.

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