At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, it seems that our forefather Avraham gets somewhat ripped off, to borrow from the contemporary vernacular, by a local nobleman named Efron.
In the great sea of knowledge and life experience of our ancestors that is the Torah, this is a very telling financial transaction that has taught humanity important lessons since time immemorial.
Our forefather Abraham was just a man living on Planet Earth about 20 generations after the creation of the world. Obviously, unlike others of his time, he was a thoughtful and introspective individual who was not satisfied with the idea of living and existing for no greater purpose than just to live and exist. There had to be something more, a greater reason, a more important goal — something bigger and more meaningful.
At this stage of the narrative one would have thought that a man like Avraham Avinu had been through enough to be given a break, so to speak. From what we are told, he is being introduced to us as just one member of a much larger family. But then, as he apparently contemplates the matter, he is told to pick up and leave his father’s home, his hometown where he was born and raised, and on top of that, he is told to just go to a place that G-d will tell him about sometime later, which, however, he is forced to discover on his own.
Prior to that we know he was placed inside some kind of furnace, somewhere in what is considered Iraq today, ostensibly to be murdered because of his beliefs. I suppose that comes under the heading of “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” at least in some parts of the world.
The apex of this personal Abrahamic drama is his unquestionably going forward with the Divine command to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, his only child that he had with Sarah, his wife. The idea of this type of test that would have been a human sacrifice is so shocking that our commentators tell us that the news of the Akeidah is what caused the seemingly sudden death of Sarah Imeinu.
We would have thought that after this situation plays itself out and Yitzchak’s life is spared, Avraham passes this G-dly test and it would perhaps be time for Avraham to get a break, to be able to take it easy (more contemporary vernacular) for at least a little while.
But Rav Adin Steinsaltz, in his commentary on the Torah, suggests that the Akeidah was not necessarily the maximum test of Avraham. Rather, it is what happened next that was the real and definitive test of Avraham’s faith in Hashem.
So there he was, with ten difficult and blistering life-and-death kind of tests behind him, but, according to Rav Steinsaltz, that was not the end by any means. There was at least one more test after the Akeidah that was even greater than the cause of the near death of Yitzchak Avinu, and that was this real-estate negotiation with Efron in the aftermath of the Akeidah and immediately following the death of his wife, Sarah.
According to Rabbi Steinsaltz, the greatest test is how we deal with — guess what? — our money. Here was our senior forefather, Avraham, probably as close to being traumatized as possible by almost slaughtering his son and then the sudden death of his wife. And now he has no choice but to enter into negotiations with Efron the Hittite. He’s overcharged and has no choice but to pay cash straight up — no bargains, discounts, or special rates for nice guys. There was no leveraging, no mortgages or payout, none of this “I’ll get back to you when the prices get lower” or anything similar to that.
And that, Rav Steinsaltz suggests, is a manifestation of the concept as recorded in Shema that we are to “love Hashem with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might.” The Talmud and other commentators say that while serving or loving Hashem with all your heart and soul might be a bit difficult to gauge or measure, doing so with our resources is not only quite measurable but something all of us can very much relate to today.
Spending your money to serve G-d, and doing so to the point where you lose all your money, is one way to interpret the dictum. But that is not necessarily the objective in how we deal with our money according to the Torah.
It’s been said somewhat humorously that the only thing that two Jews can agree about is how much a third Jew should give to charity. It’s no secret that there is a dynamic known around the world when it comes to Jews and money, though most of it is based on pejoratives and even more widely used canards about Jews.
Torah commentators tell us that it was Avraham’s kindness and welcoming of guests blazed the trail for our dispensing of a similar type of goodness and kindness through this very day. It is written that during the famine in the land of Canaan, when Avraham and Sarah had to go down to Egypt temporarily, this journey was the one that created the pathway for the future people of Israel to travel and reside in Egypt for over 200 years.
So if that is the case, it is entirely possible as well that the negotiations and the deal agreed upon by Avraham and Efron for the purchase of the Cave of Patriarchs is the arrangement that made it possible for all future real-estate transactions of that type.
Still, it sounds a little odd to suggest that there was a test of Avraham more difficult than being asked to bring his son as a korban. But according to Rabbi Steinsaltz, it is possible that the fashion in which Avraham Avinu handled his money and his business was a challenge even greater than the Akeidah, if you can imagine that.
Perhaps the way in which Avraham handled his money set the precedent for our relationship with money going forward. So, no, money might not be the root of all evil after all; it is indeed a blessing that has to be handled with great care, thought, and responsibility.