Dvar Torah delivered by Mike Garmise on Shabbat, Cheshvan 25 5776, November 7 2015
The king is dying/dead, long live the king – or is it the queen who is dead and living. As Sara is laid to rest in the first piece of land that Avraham actually purchases in the land that has been promised to him and his offspring, he jump starts a process to ensure that his great project survives. And so we have the first love story in the Bible. But just as interestingly, we also have a Biblical lesson in Levantine bargaining.
Sara has been at Avraham’s side, helping him, saving him, advising him (she was the first Jewish backseat driver) and, some say, assuring his continued proclivity as a prophet. She was, or may have been, much more prophetic than her hubby. She wore the galabia.
She’s gone and Avraham grieves for her – for exactly five words in Hebrew – and then he gets to work. To buy a plot. Remember his bargaining with God about the future of Sodom? What tenacity. What boldness. Here he is like a puppy. He can, allegedly, get the plot for nothing, but no, he ups the price for a hole in the ground from zero to 400 pieces of silver. An exorbitant price, making Efron the Hittite hit his head in disgust, why didn’t I ask for 500! What happened to the astute bargainer Avraham?
Lessons number one and two in Levantine bargaining. Know your opponent. And the first offer is just that, an opening. Especially when the seller is a wily land developer who knows the value of each handful of dirt as well as he knows his own hand. All his posturing to the people – I’ll give it to him for free – is as likely as ice in hell.
But Avraham is no fool. He is on a mission. He’s been promised a land but at age 137 he still has nothing. So he goes out and buys. Publically. And big time. I paid for this, he is saying, I overpaid and it is mine.
Mission one accomplished. Now he has a plot of land but no future generation to take advantage of it. Yitzhak is 37, not married, still trying to get over his father almost shechting him, and now mourning for his dear departed mother. But Avraham’s a good Jewish parent and gets to work. He sends his faithful servant back to Ur Kasdim to find a suitable wife for Yitzhak. And he does, coincidentally from Avraham’s own family.
And here we have the second story of Levantine bargaining. Eliezer, Avraham’s servant, is tops. He prays up his wish list to God for the attributes he wants to find in the young maiden, his prayer is answered and he bedecks the wholesome young woman with jewelry. A surefire tactic.
When he meets the family, he subtly changes the order of things so that his actions more easily fit into the scenario he has concocted. Which is lesson number three. Know your customer’s weaknesses. In this case, make the story seem to be God’s will (a ploy that works even today). And lesson number four, be sure to shmear the contractors (Laban) with lots of gold and silver and other precious goods so that they will be more amenable to your proposals.
Our ancestors’ actions serve as a model to follow. In fact, that lesson is being applied with renewed vigor in our own days. We have a prime minister who is going to give a foreign gas company rights to billions of dollars worth of gas at discount prices (why, we will only know later). We have public works officials who sell indulgences to contractors, taking kickbacks worth millions in return for the contractors winning the tender. We have upstanding politicians like Fuad Ben-Eliezer who allegedly received millions in payoffs and kickbacks. We have politicians of all parties in power who appoint their lackeys instead of competent professionals who might actually do something constructive for the country. Where is Avraham when you need him to repel the King of Sodom who wants to give him all the possessions that he, Avraham has redeemed – to which Avraham says, I will not take even a shoelace from you so that can say that you made Avraham rich.
But back to Ur Kasdim. We know why Laban acquiesced. Money. What we don’t know is why Rivka agreed to leave immediately. Based on her earlier behavior with the camels, materialistic incentives shouldn’t have been as efficacious as with her brother Laban. Perhaps she was curious about life over “there”. Perhaps she wanted to get away from Laban’s way of life and thought that anything would be better than his overbearing attitude. Perhaps this is lesson five in Levantine negotiations (applicable to all of us, in all parts of the world at all times): when opportunity knocks, be sure you have your shoes and hat on and go for it.
We don’t know for certain why she went. But we do know that she had what it takes. When she and Yitzhak meet, there are sparks on both sides. And when he brings her to his late mother’s tent, we understand that she is the new queen, able to console him, finally, and bring him some sorely needed peace of mind.
We later see that Yitzhak and Rivka settle in Beer Lachai Ro’i, the well that Hagar the mother of Ishmael found in the desert. Are we supposed to understand that he went to live near his half-brother and his mother? Did he stay away from Avraham because of the close-call almost sacrifice? Or because he wanted to build a future for his extended family where all members, no matter how different and contentious they were, could live together harmoniously.
Last lesson: the past may stay with us. But living in the past can only lead to sorrow. Like Yitzhak, we should work instead to make the future better.
A lesson we should all learn.