Thursday, October 28, 2010

Men diminished by their motives. Being Good, or just Looking Good? (Chaye Sarah)

This week I enjoyed a 7 minute report on National TV about my work and friendship with a Sheik. It seems inappropriate to admit this, I am supposed to pretend that I dislike publicity, but I think being aware of our less noble motives is the first step to keeping them in check.

This leads me to wonder about the ways that people act “nice”, satirized in this joke.
Mother in Law shows up at the door of her son in law.
Son in law: Hi, what a nice surprise, how long are you staying?
Mother in Law: Oh, I don't want to trouble you, as long as you are happy for me to stay.
Son in law: What?! You won't even come inside for a cup of tea?!

There are dances of repeatedly insisting on giving and refusing to take that are common to many cultures. I have a vague idea of an Arabic custom of a prospective host offering three times, initially the guest insists on not wanting to trouble him/her and on the third bounce the offer is accepted. Is this inspired social glue, or dishonest game playing?

We see this playing out in a negotiation over a burial plot between Efron, the Hitites & Abraham1. In response to Abraham's request for a “a possession (of land for a) grave”, the Hitities say; listen my master, you are a prince of God among us, in the choices of our graves you can bury your dead. None of us will withhold their grave from you.

Subtext: As a prince you can take whatever you want, the flip side is that in the future your right to it can be contested, they can say that you used your position to take it and not one could refuse you, but it is not yours by right2. 2) You can just have one of our graves, but not a burial plot3.

Abraham then argues with Efron, who insists that he would be happy to give the land away for free, while Abraham insists on paying the full price. In the end Efron nonchalantly4 says; “a land of 400 silver Shekels, between you and me, what is it?!” Abraham then pays him the equivalent of up to a million silver shekels5 and Efron is condemned in our tradition for talking a big generous game in front of all the people of his city, but then naming a high price in the end. In fact his name is spelled with a letter missing from his name (the letter Vav is missing) which makes his name sound like Afrn, related to earth as if he was talking with dust in his mouth6.

The missing letter theme plays out in the Servant Eliezer's negotiation with Abraham about finding a wife for his son. Abraham wants his servant to bring a foreign wife from the home country and tribe, not a local “from the people among who I live7”.

But, “Oolai” what if she will not want to come? He asks. The spelling here again, is missing a Vav, so the word can be read a Alai, - to me- and is interpreted as his hoping that his mission will be a failure, and instead the match will come to him and his daughter. Interestingly, although the story is told twice in the Torah8 the variation of the spelling only appears in the text when he retells the story after finding Rebeccah and his conflict of interest is not longer a practical issue. This demonstrates that ulterior motives are very difficult to spot in the moment, although, they could be easier to spot once the situation is no longer practical.
The final grand dance, is when Eliezer devises a test of generosity to see which girl should be a wife for his master's son. He notices a beautiful girl, and asks her for “a little bit of water from his jug” when what really wants is to see if she will offer water not just for him but also for his camels. She modestly, says drink my master and says nothing more but goes on to bring water for all his camels.

It is proper for the asker to ask for less than s/he needs so as not to trouble (the other person), but it is proper for the giver to give more and do for the asker, enough (to supply that which s/he) lacks or more9.

There is a logic to the game, it helps if it is played sincerely by all the players.
1Genesis 23:3-16.
2Oh Hachayim.
4As explained by R. Arye Kaplan in Living Torah.
6Bartinura quoted in ArtScroll Bereshis book 3, page 882.
7Genesin 24:3.
8Genesis 24:5 & 24:39.
9Seforno, on Genesis 24:14


  1. the rules of etiquette were founded in preserving the dignity and comfort of others..... and quickly became a way to preserve class and elitism. as with everything, 'etiquette' can be a trickster, and requires great self vigilance to identify whether the individual exercising it is coming from compassion or ego. Och, nothing's easy!

  2. thanks. Donna, all comes back to that. Doesn't it.