Sin is Crouching at The Door
It is written, “[Abraham] spoke to them, saying: ‘If it is truly your will to bury my dead from before me…let [Ephron] grant me the Cave of Machpelah which is his…let him grant it to me for its full price….’ Ephron the Hittite responded…‘I have given you the field, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. In the view of the children of my people have I given it to you…. Land worth four hundred silver shekels, between me and you, what is it? Bury your dead.’ Abraham heeded Ephron, and Abraham weighed out to Ephron the price which he had mentioned” (Genesis 23:8-16).
The negotiations between Abraham and Ephron centered on the question of payment. Abraham offered a good price for the Cave of Machpelah, and for his part Ephron the Hittite offered him the cave with the field that surrounded it as a gift. Yet in the end, “Ephron spoke much, but he did not fulfill one word of what he said” (Bava Metzia 87a), and he demanded 400 silver shekels for the cave, even adding: “between me and you, what is it?”
The commentators say that Abraham was only asking to purchase the cave that was at the end of the field, whereas Ephron specified “the field and the cave” several times. Why did he want to give him the field in addition to the cave, since Abraham had not asked for it? In the end, Abraham also purchased the field, as it is written: “And Ephron’s field, which was in Machpelah, facing Mamre, the field and the cave within it and all the trees in the field, within all its surrounding boundaries, was confirmed as Abraham’s as a purchase in the view of the children of Heth” (Genesis 23:17-18). Why, in fact, did Abraham also purchase the field?
To explain this, we must understand that impurity is always found in parallel with holiness, a growth that attaches itself and feeds off of holiness. If impurity does not find nourishment, it dies off and disappears. How can we effectively prevent impurity from nourishing itself? Through self-improvement, diligent Torah study, and sincere prayer – as well as through blessings said with proper concentration – impurity is prevented from nourishing itself to such an extent that it finally disappears. This in turn strengthens holiness and enables it to increase and spread. The Name of G-d is then glorified in the world, as it is said concerning Abraham, namely that he “invoked G-d’s Name and taught others to invoke it” (Sotah 10b).
We may explain that Ephron offered to give Abraham the field in addition to the cave for two reasons:
1. Ephron spoke much yet failed to do what he said, and nobody was more evil than him. To win over the hearts of the city’s residents (so as to be honored by them), he tried to show everyone just how generous he was by coming to the rescue of the needy. Thus not only did he say that he was going to give the cave to Abraham, he also consented to give him the field that surrounded it for free. This would greatly benefit Ephron, for everyone would extol him from that point on for having given the field and the cave to our Patriarchs.
2. Ephron wanted for his own name, Ephron the impure, to be forever inscribed on the cave next to Abraham’s, thus immortalizing his memory.
Abraham, however, understood Ephron’s wicked intentions and wanted to undermine them, which is why he refused his gift. Abraham wanted to uproot Ephron’s name from that place and, by paying the 400 silver shekels in hard currency, prove in the eyes of the whole world that Ephron was an ill-intentioned hypocrite. It was precisely in this way that Ephron’s name was cursed, as it is written: “The name of the wicked will rot” (Proverbs 10:7), and thus impurity would no longer be able to nourish itself with the holiness of that place.
Even though Abraham had no need for the field, he finally purchased it. However in seeing Ephron’s great brazenness – and disturbed by Ephron’s incredible impurity – he did not want to be his neighbor and thus give everyone the chance to say that Abraham’s cave was located at the end of Ephron’s field. Such an association would have benefited Ephron, which is why Abraham immediately accepted to purchase the field along with the cave.
That being said, there exists yet another aspect to Ephron’s wickedness.
In the account of Sarah’s burial, there are six places in which the word “bury” appears immediately before the expression “your dead”. It is only at the end of the account that Ephron says, “and your dead, bury” (Genesis 23:15). After having concluded the sale, why is the order of the words reversed?
The people of the land spoke of Sarah with respect, and because of their respect they mentioned her burial before her death so as not to begin their statements with the expression “your dead”. Even Ephron, who was a wicked swindler, at first expressed himself with respect concerning Sarah. Nevertheless, in the end he revealed to his shame just how great his scorn actually was:
1. First of all, he declared before all the residents of the city that he was freely giving his cave to Abraham, but then he asked an exorbitant price for it, and in hard currency.
2. When he told Abraham what price he wanted for the sale, he disdainfully added, “and your dead, bury”. This disdain is typical of the wicked, who speak of the righteous with respect, yet in the end scorn them. As it is written, “Everything that is considered good by the evil is considered evil by the good” (Yebamot 103a). One must avoid such people like the plague.
This teaches everyone to “keep away from a bad neighbor” (Perkei Avoth 1:7), and to avoid receiving gifts from the wicked so as not to satisfy their wickedness and give them a reason to boast and exert control over others. In addition, such a gift will also have an influence on the recipient. However an upright man, because of the holiness of his prayers, can eliminate the impurity attached to a gift by making it his through a complete acquisition, thus effecting its repair.
The aforementioned concerns people who are simply mean. On the other hand, an upright man must refuse all commercial transactions with those who are evil – whose wickedness is more pronounced. The upright man must absolutely avoid receiving gifts from such people.
The power of impurity comes from the evil inclination, and we know just how powerful the evil inclination can be. It always finds a way to accompany a man and attach itself to him, as the Sages have said: “Today it [the evil inclination] says, ‘Do this,’ and tomorrow it says, ‘Do that’ ” (Shabbat 198b). This is an art to the evil inclination, and it is capable of convincing a person that in fact it only wants his good, that it only wants to help him, as if without it a person cannot live. A person must overcome the evil inclination in every circumstance and uproot it from his heart, even if this will cost him dearly, for in the end “the evil inclination is an old and foolish king” (Ecclesiastes Rabba 4:15), and one should not listen an old man who drivels on. We must avoid the fleeting pleasures that the evil inclination shines before our eyes and vigorously reject it and its advice. When we reject its arguments, we publicly demonstrate to everyone just how bad the advice of the evil inclination truly is. This is what Abraham did when he refused to accept Ephron’s gift, purchasing the field and the cave at an exorbitant price in order to distance himself from Ephron as much as possible.
It is the duty of upright individuals to unmask the strategies of the evil inclination, which only scorns people by making them think that it is their friend, that it wants their good, and that it defends their interests. Its sole intention, however, is to gain a good reputation and to accepted. That was the very essence of Ephron, whose name is tied to that of Pharaoh, the “prototype of evil and impurity” (see Zohar II:17a, 52b), and who wanted to earn fame among the sons of Heth in order to more completely dominate them.
The Torah states, “Sin is crouching at the door” (Genesis 4:7), for when a person has the misfortune of allowing sin the smallest of openings, and when such a person listens to and heeds its advice, it follows that the Satan – the evil inclination (which first knocked at the door) – will come inside and take up residence there, eventually becoming the master of the house. However for the person who allows an opening to the word of G-d, He will open the doors wide and save him from the Satan, delivering him from impurity and consecrating him in the exclusive service of G-d. As the Sages say, “Open for Me an opening the size of a pin, and I will open it for you the size of a hallway” (Shir Hashirim Rabba 5:3).