Torah Reading: Genesis: Chapters 23 to 25:18
Haftarah: First Kings Chapter 1: 1-31
This week's Torah reading opens with the death of Sarah. Her husband Abraham rises from his mourning and goes to the Hittites, offering to purchase the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite:
Ask him to sell me the cave of Machpelah that he owns, the one at the end of his land. Ask him to sell it to me at its full price for a burial plot, with you as witnesses." Ephron was part of the local Hittite community. Then Ephron the Hittite spoke up, answering Abraham with all the Hittites who were part of the town council listening: "Oh no, my master! I couldn't do that. The field is yours - a gift. I'll give it and the cave to you. With my people as witnesses, I give it to you. Bury your deceased wife." Abraham bowed respectfully before the assembled council and answered Ephron: "Please allow me - I want to pay the price of the land; take my money so that I can go ahead and bury my wife." Then Ephron answered Abraham, "If you insist, master. What's four hundred silver shekels between us? Now go ahead and bury your wife." Abraham accepted Ephron's offer and paid out the sum that Ephron had named before the town council of Hittites - four hundred silver shekels at the current exchange rate.
Genesis 23: 9-16.
Thus, our father Abraham declined Ephron's offer of a gift, and insisted on paying what was apparently the full market price of the land. Why did Abraham decline the offer of the gift? One explanation is that Abraham understood that Ephron and his fellow Hittites were being kind to their neighbor who had just lost his wife, they truly felt sorry for him, so they offered to give him this land so he could bury his wife. But Abraham did not want to take advantage of his neighbors, who might come to regret having giving away their land without a price. Abraham insisted on being fair and just to them, by paying the full price of the land, and not to take advantage of their kindness.
We are obligated, not only by the laws of Torah, and not only by the laws of our cities, states and nations, to buy and sell with honesty and not to be deceitful in our economic dealings. We may not like Wal-Mart, but we do not walk into Wal-Mart and attempt to shoplift, and all of us would agree that anyone who steals merchandise from any retailer, small or large, should be criminally prosecuted. Four years ago our economy almost collapsed into a second great depression, triggered largely by crooks on Wall Street and investment bankers with their credit default swaps and hedge fund and other crooked dealing that enriched themselves while leaving millions of others impoverished. And economic fairness also applies to the relationship between the so-called "job creators" and the vast majority who feed, house, and clothe their families from the wages they earn working for these "job creators."
Much of the Talmud is devoted to the regulation of the marketplace and of the workplace. The rabbis developed a legal system to ensure that buyers and sellers, and employers and workers, do not use their economic muscle to impoverish the poor, and to ensure that we deal with one another fairly, honestly, and with dignity. In Baba Metzia, Babylonian Talmud, 83a we read:
Some porters were hired to move a barrel of wine belonging to Rabbah bar [son of] Bar Huna, and they [negligently] broke the barrel. Thereupon he [Rabbah bar Bar Huna] seized their garments; so they went and complained to Rav. 'Return them their garments,' he ordered. 'Is that the law?' he [Rabbah bar Bar Huna] inquired. 'Yes,' Rav rejoined, and quoted Proverbs 2:20 'Follow the way of the good.' Rabbah returned their garments but still refused to pay them their wages. The porters returned to Rav and told him: 'We are poor men, we have worked all day, and are in need: are we to get nothing?' Rav ordered Rabbah 'Go and pay them.' 'Is that the law?' Rabbah asked. 'Yes,' was his reply, quoting the second half of Proverbs 2:20 'and keep the path of the righteous.'This Tuesday, a narrow majority of Americans (ignore the very artificial electoral vote) rejected a philosophy and political party determined to remove most of the regulations that regulate fairness in the market place, as well as most or all the laws that ensure that workers receive a fair and livable wage, a safe workplace, and are protected in their right to form unions to negotiate for decent working conditions. Somehow, I think Rav and most of the rabbis, but not Rabbah bar Bar Huna, would have approved.