This week’s parasha discusses the purchase of a burial plot by Avraham Avinu for his wife Sarah. He buys the plot from the newly elected head of the Hittites, a scoundrel of a fellow by the name of Ephron.
The Medrash describes Ephron as a person who was “nivhal l’hon” – a person who became confused when he saw the money Avraham was prepared to give for the burial site.
However, something does not seem right. Avraham approached the sons of Chet. He told them that he needed a burial plot. Ephron got up in front of everyone and magnanimously told Avraham that he would GIVE him a burial plot, no charge what so ever. He offered it as an outright present, stating basically that it was a privilege to be able to give Avraham the land.
But Avraham insisted that he did not want the field as a gift. He wanted to pay for it. Ephron responded, “What is a mere 400 pieces of silver between friends. You don’t have to pay me.”
Suddenly, Ephron mentioned a price! What happened? Where is the transition? Why does Ephron suddenly switch from being the gracious generous giving person to ‘What is 400 bucks between friends?’
Rav Simcha Zissel records an incident in the life of the Rambam. A group of wise men approached him and told him that they could change the nature of a cat, training it to be as gracious and polite and as giving as a human being, making the cat into a servile butler. The Rambam argued that it was impossible to change the nature of a cat.
The group of ‘wise men’ set about for weeks and weeks to train a cat. They trained it to walk on its hind legs. They dressed the cat up in a little suit. It was trained that when people came into the room the cat would escort them to their seats. In fact, the cat acted just like a butler. They further trained the cat to hold a little cup and to serve the people when they got to their seats. They invited the Rambam to show him their accomplishment and to prove to him that it is possible to train an animal to be just like a human being.
The cat greeted the Rambam and guided him to his seat. When the Rambam got to his seat he removed a box from his pocket. In the box was a little mouse. He dropped the mouse on the floor. The cat suddenly forgot that it was a butler and scampered after the mouse. The Rambam turned to the wise men and said, “A cat is a cat and will always be a cat.”
Rav Simcha Zissel concluded that unless a human being learns to train himself, he will also be like a cat. There are times when he may act kind and gracious and cultured. But when his button gets pressed and he is no longer in control, he can lose it all – to his own equivalent of the mouse.
Avraham’s words to Ephron: “I am prepared to give money for the field. Take it from me” pushed Ephron’s button. Reaching into his pocket and taking out the shekels of silver was equivalent to the Rambam’s dropping the mouse in front of the cat. Ephron lost it right there. The jingle of the money was all he needed to throw off his magnanimous show of generosity and become a greedy money-lusting estate agent.
Every human being potentially has his own ‘mouse’, whether it is a real mouse or money or food, or whether it is other physical lusts. We all have that thing that can reduce us from being a human being to just a two-legged animal.
A cat cannot become a ‘mensch’. But a man CAN become a ‘mensch’. A person can learn to control himself. That, in fact, is man’s spiritual task in this world. The challenge of man is to not ‘lose it’ when confronted by all the potential lusts of this world. We don’t want to become like the cat that chases after the mouse.
As Jews, we are built for better things. And that makes for a lot of happy mice.