By: Deborah Abecassis Warshawsky 

parsha sarahDo you give your children an allowance?  Do they do chores in order to earn that allowance?  Do you withhold allowance if they don’t do all the chores every day? Money or stickers or stars or checkmarks are all tangible symbols that convey value to a task or an object.  It’s a fact.  We give in order to get.   The internet is full of discussions on whether we should pay our children to make their beds or clean their rooms, clear the table after a meal or take out the trash.  What are we teaching them by paying for tasks they should do as contributing members of the family unit? Should the positive sense of responsibility not be its own reward?

The harsh reality is that money holds a lot of power.  For better or for worse, money is a means for communication, affirmation, and evaluation, and society ascribes rank, status and influence to those who have it.  Just ask the striking teachers.  Money means paying rent and feeding your children; it also means appreciation, validation and recognition.

Whether we pay our children for daily tasks or not, whether or not we give them spending money at the end of each week just for living in our house- money is a tough lesson to teach.  We want to convey that there is a cost to everything we value and that getting what we want does not come free.  We want them to learn positive work ethics and that the money that comes out of the ATM is not endless.  We want to teach them the balance of saving and spending, that money does not define your worth, that kindness and good deeds are more important than dollars and cents.

In this week’s parashah, Hayyei Sarah (The life of Sarah), Sarah has recently died and Abraham wishes to purchase a cave in the field belonging to Ephron, the Hittite.  He asks the children of Heth to intercede on his behalf, and assures them he wants to pay: “let him grant it to me for full price.”  Ephron hears of Abraham’s request and replies: “No, my lord, heed me! I have given the field to you, and as for the cave that is in it, I have given it to you; in view of the children of my people have I given it to you; bury your dead.”

The commentators regard Ephron’s response as effusively generous – not only will he give Abraham the cave, but also the field in which it stands, and he will give him both for free.  The phrase “in view of the children of my people,” ascribes witnesses to this offer and confers upon it an air of legality.  Abraham, however, replies with the same exaggerated deference and insists on paying: “Rather, if you would only heed me!  I have given you the money of the field, take from me that I may bury my dead there.”

Ephron does not let the matter go.  What are four hundred silver shekels for land between friends, he persists.  The Torah then tells us, “Abraham listened to Ephron, and Abraham weighed out to Ephron the money that he had mentioned in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred silver shekels at the current rate.”

Hizkuni, a 13th-century French rabbi, asks what did Abraham “listen to” of Ephron.  Ephron didn’t want Abraham to pay for the field and the cave, but the verse tells us that Abraham did pay, so how does “weighing out the shekels” show us how Abraham listened to Ephron.  Hizkuni explains that Abraham “listened to” Ephron’s assessment of the land.  Ephron may have said casually, “What’s four hundred silver shekels between friends – you don’t have to pay me,” but Abraham heard him say, “My land is worth four hundred silver shekels,” and thus paid him its worth.  Like Ephron’s initial offer, Abraham’s payment is completed “in the hearing of the children of Heth,” legitimizing the sale with the presence of witnesses.

Why does the Torah include the minutiae of this negotiation for Maharat Ha-Machpelah – the burial cave for Sarah, and ultimately as well, Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob and Leah?  Would it not have been enough to tell us that Abraham purchased the land from the Hittites?

The rabbis believed this chapter teaches us about Abraham’s humility, that even though God promised him and his descendants the land of Israel, he was willing to pay a high price for a field in this land, without complaint and without any doubt in his faith in God.

I think there is also a practical and concrete lesson to be learned from Abraham’s behaviour.  By insisting on paying for the land that he wanted, Abraham was able to clearly and unequivocally own the land without incurring any debt – of money or gratitude.  He could bury Sarah without any ambiguity as to the land’s ownership – there was no favour and no gift.  He paid the owner the land’s worth and executed a fair and final negotiation.

Merchants who sell their wares, tradesmen who service our homes, professionals who use their training for our benefit are entitled to be paid fairly for their time and work.  Plumbers will not (and should not be expected to) unblock our sinks out of the kindness of their hearts, even if we think we deserve it. Even though Abraham was being offered the land and the cave for free, he shows us, by listening to Ephron’s nonchalant mention of the land’s worth, that nothing is really for free, and that we validate the worth of what we want by paying its value fairly.  (Cue the striking teachers).

Further on in the parashah, Abraham sends his servant out of the land of Canaan, back to his native land, in order to find a wife for Isaac. Rebecca is noted for the kindness she shows to the servant by tipping her jug so he may drink from it and watering his camels as well.  The kindness extended to a stranger and the subsequent reward for Rebecca of jewels and marriage are an interesting contrast to the business negotiation at the parashah’s beginning.  Abraham rejects the kindness extended to him in favour of an objective and concrete exchange, whereas his servant hinges the success of his task on the kindness of a girl.  The kindness shown to Abraham had invisible strings and the potential for repercussions.  The kindness shown to the servant was pure and without expectation.

We teach our children to be kind to others no matter who they think is watching, to be kind for the sake of being kind, to put themselves in the place of others and treat them as they wish to be treated.  This lesson is not unrelated to paying fair money for that which you want.  We should not take advantage of another’s goodwill and we should reimburse as we would wish to be paid for our services, our skills and our time.  Money is a universal currency of validation for services rendered.  It is desired and required by all for basic daily living.  Most would rather hold onto what they have for themselves rather than give it to others.  Abraham models honourable and ethical business negotiations; Rebecca reminds us that kindness reaps its own rewards.

Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century English writer, said: “Getting money is not all a man’s business; to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the business of life.”

As we decide whether or not to pay our children for chores, which chores and for how many shekels, let us remember that the lessons on money we hope to impart should not only be about receiving and earning, but about paying, helping, validating and appreciating others.

Shabbat Shalom.


Discussion Questions for the Shabbat Table:

  1. Why do you think Abraham insisted on paying Ephron for the land and the cave even though it was offered to him for free?
  2. Do you think Ephron’s offer to Abraham was genuine? What might have been the consequences to Abraham had he not paid full price for the land?
  3. Why is it important to pay fairly for what you want?
  4. What is remarkable about the kindness Rebecca showed Abraham’s servant?
  5. What role does or should kindness play in fair and ethical business negotiations?