Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

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Walk Article


Chaye Sarah-5778

Rabbi David Walk


            When I went to a counselor many years ago, she suggested a strategy for serious conversations called it 'reflective listening'.  This technique has two requirements.  First, the listener has to focus on what the speaker has said and try to understand their point of view.  Then the listener must repeat the idea expressed by the speaker.  It's a very effective tool in conflict resolution, and encourages empathy with the other.  Often, we just don't just really listen, either because we're preoccupied or we're not empathetic.  As Peter Griffin famously said, 'It's not that I don't understand, it's that I don't care.'    But if we really want to get along better with others this technique really helps.  The alternative is continued, and often escalating, conflict.  We have a great example in this week's Torah reading.

            Avraham has returned to Chevron upon hearing of the death of his beloved wife, Sarah.   He eulogizes and mourns for his wife.  Now, he must arrange for burial.  This is a sensitive situation for reasons which are unclear to us.  Either the locals really want Sarah buried in their midst because of their reverence for her and Avraham, or they just wanted to get the most for the property.  We don't know.  The rabbinic attempts to explain that situation, I believe, generally describe the Jewish-Gentile relations in the experience of the author, not the time of Avraham. In any case, Avraham felt uncomfortable and he describes his discomfort in a memorable phrase: ger v'toshav anochi (I am a stranger and a resident, perhaps a resident alien).  Although many commentaries explain this to mean that I no longer live amongst you, because I've transferred my permanent home to Beer Sheva.  I disagree.  I think that Avraham was a semi nomad and he lived in the Chevron area in the summer and in the Beer Sheva district in the winter.  This was a lesson for future generations of Jews who would winter in Florida.  Avraham came up with a great description of his status for a populace nervous about refugees from Iraq (Ur Chasdim) and Syria (Charan).  Plus ça changeplus c'est la même chose.

            Now for the actual negotiationThe locals are very respectful of Avraham.  They call him a nasi elokim, literally a prince of God in place of his self-description as a resident alien.  Apparently, they viewed him as a great man on the both the temporal and spiritual levels.  They opened by saying, 'Listen to us, my lord (Genesis 23:6).'  Then they graciously offer him to choose any burial place, seemingly without cost.  Avraham responds, 'If you really want to help me bury my dead, then listen to me, and present my case before Ephron the Hittite (verse 8).'  Now, Ephron enters the discussion, and says, 'No, my lord, listen to me, the field is already transferred to you publicly, just take it and bury your dead (verse 11).'  Then Avraham addresses Ephron, 'But listen to me, I want to pay for the land (verse 13).'  Now it's Ephron's turn, 'My lord, listen to me, what's four hundred shekels to men such as us.  Go bury your dead (verse 15).'  This could have gone on forever, because everyone asking the other 'to listen', but not once does it say that the other side listened, until verse 16, 'And Avraham listened.'

            It's seems that political dialogue today has been replaced by simultaneous monologues.  That's what was happening in our negotiation.  Everyone was stating their own positions.  No one was trying to fathom what the other was saying.  Until Avraham got it.  He understood that all the posturing was for show.  Ephron wanted a big pay day.  I wish we had visuals of the speakers in this scenario.   I believe with that added data we would understand what Avraham understood.  This explains why the next verse is so definitive that field 'arose and became Avraham's'.  it was universally recognized because everyone present saw that this was the true position of all those involved.  Now the Midrash informs us that there are three places in the world where no other nations can question our rightful ownership, because the Torah testifies to our lawful acquisition:  Ma'arat Hamachpela, the Temple Mount and the burial site of Yosef in Shechem (Breishit Raba 79:7).  Right!

            Obviously, we all recognize that those are amongst the most contentious sites on the face of our planet.  Did the rabbis get it so wrong?  No!  I believe that they meant that if we could present our case before an audience which was willing to listen we could convince any reasonable listener of our legitimate rights.  However, that's not the case.  We don't have a fair hearing, because the other side has an interest, which blocks the counter arguments.  We're all the same.  We don't want to hear our kids, siblings, spouses, because we have an interest which is often challenged by the other side.

            I think that we can only understand the Midrash in light of the lack of communication in our story which was the first of the three instances of Jewish purchase.  No one can hear the counter argument.  The world doesn't have a hearing problem.  The world has an empathy problem, which leads to a listening problem.  The Palestinians can't hear the Israelis from the outset, because they believe it wouldn't be in their best interest, and so there is no dialogue.  And we're guilty, too.  The Democrats can't hear the Republicans, the Likud can't hear Labor, the old can't hear the young.  It all comes down to one word:  Fear!

            We all must emulate Avraham, and let down the barriers.  We must let go of the fear, because we will all benefit in the long run, if we just listen honestly to the other.  Jerry Seinfeld was on Stephen Colbert's show, and admitted that Colbert was right about a point of contention.  Then he said the saddest line, perhaps, in the history of broadcasting:  How come no one is ever convinced by the arguments of another?  Yeah, how come?