Columbia University, Efron the Hittite and a Matter of Perspective

19 Nov

I don’t know if people have been following the homophone of the week: The band got banned.

Apparently Columbia’s marching band has been suspended from playing at the final football game of the season because, last game, they changed the lyrics of the school fight song from, “Roar, Lions, Roar” to “Lose, Lions, Lose.” Now, they did have a point. After all, the Columbia Lions football team does have 9 losses this season and 9 fewer wins. And, of course, I take some delight in the fact that this may be one of the only schools where the band makes fun of the jocks. But still, I couldn’t believe that students would mock other students that way – people who practice for hours each week, even if they are unsuccessful. That was my read on the situation, until I spoke with a Columbia student this week.

Oddly, the conversation brought me to today’s parsha. The parsha opens with an important exchange of property, an exchange so significant that it leads hundreds of people to flock to Hebron each year for Parshat Chaye Sarah, an exchange so significant that it is mentioned at the very beginning of the Gemara Kiddushin to teach us some halacha about acquisitions. I refer, of course, to the exchange between Avraham and Efron in which Avraham buys the Cave of Machpelah and the land around it.

The way we are usually taught this story is as follows: Poor Avraham, he had nowhere to bury Sarah, and he went to the Hittites, the bnei Chet, to ask for a plot of land. And of course, being the honest and genuine person that he was, he offered to pay. “No, please, we’ll give it to you for free.” But he insisted and bowed to them and called himself a stranger – self-effacing, humble, meek. And then, of course, he was squeezed privately by Efron for every penny and more. Poor Avraham, tsk, tsk.

But that may be a mistaken reading.

After all, there are some questions here: Why does Avraham go to the whole group of bnei Chet and only later ask for Efron? I don’t know about you, but when I buy property, הלואי (if only!), I don’t go to all of the tenants in the building, ask them for the property and then ask them to introduce me to the landlord. I go straight to the landlord. Avraham clearly knew Efron’s name. Why not go straight to him?

But more to the point, let’s see what Avraham actually said to the Hittite people:

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי, עִמָּכֶם; תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת-קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם, וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי.

I am a wanderer and a resident among you; please give me a burial plot among you, and I shall bury my dead.

What about the money? If Avraham is so intent on paying for this, why doesn’t he mention that? He asks for a gift, and only once he is told that he can have it, does he say, okay, I want to pay for it.

We tend to read Avraham in this scenario with the principle of “charity.” This term, coined (pun intended) by Willard Van Orman Quine, an early 20th century philosopher, means that when a person says something that contradicts his/her earlier statements or is simply nonsensical, we strive to find a reading that makes sense, a charitable reading. We do this all the time. In fact, Rabbi Ausubel suggested to me that this is similar to auto-correct on the computer or the phone. You were trying to say x, but made a mistake, and the technology figures out how to read your words sensibly.

Why did Avraham go to the whole tribe of Hittites? Says the Rashbam: in the ancient world, when buying a burial plot, one needed the permission of the whole tribe. And Ramban explains that Avraham could not just walk up to Efron, Efron was a high profile man. Avraham needed someone to get him an audience with Efron. But furthermore, and here is the charitable reading, Avraham does not misrepresent his interests; he did not mean “give” for free, he meant “give” for a price, but he will cherish it as though it were a gift. Avraham is totally consistent.

We have a family friend who is a high profile criminal defense attorney. He tells us that he opens every argument with the following story:

A vegetable vendor with a horse-drawn cart is moving his good around the streets, when suddenly his cart is knocked over by a passing carriage. Everything is a mess – the horse is down, the vendor is down, and the vegetables are strewn everywhere. His produce is ruined. So, of course, he sues. In the courtroom, the defense calls the police officer who had been the first responder. And they ask, “When you found the plaintiff, what did he tell you?” “He said, I’m okay. I’m okay.” Everyone is puzzled. The plaintiff then takes the stand, and is asked, “How do you respond to what the police officer said? He said that you claimed to be fine when he arrived?” “Well, you have to understand. Let me paint a picture. The vegetables were everywhere, I was down on the ground, my horse was down, and even a dog had gotten caught in the accident and was lying down whimpering. With his gun out of his holster, the officer walks up to the dog, gives it a kick – Are you okay? – No response, so he shoots the dog. He goes over to my horse, nudges him with his arm – Are you okay? -No response, so he shoots the horse. The officer comes up to me, puts his hand on my shoulder, and I scream, ‘I’m fine! I’m fine!’”

Some (notably, Rabbi Yonatan Grossman of Migdal Oz) follow in the footsteps of the Radak, Rabbi David Kimchi, in saying that actually Avraham did misrepresent himself. He came forward and said, “Please give me land; I am in an urgent situation of bereavement and have nowhere else to turn,” and when they said “yes” because how could they turn him away in such straits, he said, “Okay, well then, can I buy it?” If they are willing to give it for free, surely they are willing to let him buy it! But of course they did not want him to buy it. What sovereign tribe wants an outsider purchasing their land and removing it from their possession? It’s the way of the world, throughout history, and unfortunately today it is happening in parts of the world we care about deeply. No, the Hittites will let him use the land, but not buy it – they wanted to do him a favor, to have him beholden to them, not to have independent ownership of their land. So they appear gracious, “Oh, no, we couldn’t possibly take money.” But he bows to them, “I am no threat, I am at your mercy, I am merely a wanderer, I insist on paying.” And when Efron shows up, he does not want to sell the land to Avraham either, so he feigns magnanimity – “I’ll even throw in the field around the cave, that’s how kind we are to you.” And Avraham sees his chance, “Wonderful, so then I should be able to buy the field as well!” And then Efron takes him aside – apparently, his greed leads him not just to take advantage of Avraham’s willingness to pay; his greed leads him to betray his own tribe – “Okay, you can buy it, but ביני ובינך, just between us, don’t tell anyone. I’ll give you the deed to the land.” And then, what does Avraham do? In the next two psukim, Avraham gives him the money IN FRONT OF EVERYONE so that the Hittites would know that Avraham now owned a piece of land.

When I spoke to a Columbia student this week about the band, she said, “What if I told you that the football team and the band planned it together as a publicity stunt. Would that change your perspective?” “Sure.” “Well, anyway, that’s not what happened, but it’s good food for thought.”

There’s more than one way to read a situation. We often look for Avraham to be meek, to be the victim, almost the nebuch just keeping his head down and doing the right thing. But sometimes “reading with charity” turns people into charity cases. We miss Avraham’s negotiating tactics, his brilliant diplomatic acumen. It is Avraham who wins the day here; he is manipulating the situation.

Sometimes when we jump to the most obvious reading, we miss the most obvious and critical point. If only we would take a step back and re-evaluate, consider a different perspective, perhaps we would see something else. And more important than doing this in the case of text, is being able to do this in real life.

Shabbat Shalom


Posted by on November 19, 2011 in current affairs, Mrs. Elana Stein Hain, parsha


2 responses to “Columbia University, Efron the Hittite and a Matter of Perspective

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