My foster kids are still working on understanding what it means to live in a Jewish house— which holidays we do, and which we don’t. What foods we eat, which we don’t. One of them asked me the other day, “Do you celebrate Black Friday?”
I wasn’t sure how to respond. I think Black Friday is celebrated by many, and dreaded by others. Personally, though I’m not agoraphobic, the thought of being in those crowds freaks me out. I think I saw on TV this morning that the Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in New York had 16,000 people lined up waiting just to get inside. No thanks. I heard that there were riots in South Africa over discounted toilet paper. It makes me shudder. In past years people have died, being trampled as they rushed into Wal-Mart to take advantage of the holiday sales. Folks…. at some point, isn’t this beneath our dignity? Couldn’t we spend 50 more bucks for a television or 20 more dollars for a pair of boots just to keep our sanity? We have to ask ourselves, what is the price point on our dignity? We’d have to ply ourselves and spend a little more. Especially for toilet paper, we could triple ply ourselves, cushion the blow, and be more absorbent to the sticker shock, and pay what it’s actually worth.
Don’t get me wrong, I like a good discount as much as the next guy. I have driven across town two and three times looking for the best deal on a computer. With a conservative calculation for gas and mileage, I basically broke even. What I’m trying to say is, every now and then, it’s worth the extra expense to escape aggravation.
This is part and parcel of what our father Abraham teaches in this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah. The life of Sarah comes to an end, and Abraham needs a special place to bury her. Just like today, we don’t just bury in any old place. We seek special grounds, often locations adorned in beauty. Our Mt. Lebanon in Wyuka is a fine example. People picnic there. They perform Shakespeare in the summer. I will never forget the first week I was in Lincoln, and I went to do the funeral for Richard Sachs, and I was greeted by a pair of beautiful swans. The Wyuka Cemetery is no ordinary plot of land. This is precisely the type of place Abraham sought for his beloved Sarah, practicing the Jewish value of kevod hamet. That is honoring the dead with heartfelt devotion, just as much if not more than they were honored during their life. He doesn’t think long and decides on the cave at Machpelah in Chevron, in the land of the Hittites, on the property of Ephron the son of Zohar. The commentators have a field day with the name of this place just to glorify this piece of real estate. Machpelah, Rashi says, means double (from the root kaf-feh-lamed)… it has a lower level and un upper level. Rashi’s grandson, the Rashbam says it is called, “double” because it not only includes the cave, but also the field leading to it. And if you really like a garden view, the Zohar book of mysticism, teaches that Machpelah means double as it bridges this world to the Garden of Eden. I think a realtor would say, “It’s literally the ultimate green belt!” So what would you pay for such a plot of land? Do you follow the MLS listings, wait to see how many days it is on the market and see if the price drops, or do you just know that’s the place you want and you taking no risk on losing out to another buyer?
Abraham wastes no time. Machpelah is the cave he wants, and he wants to honor Sarah by returning her to the Earth as quickly as possible. He announces to the Hittites who live in the area that he will go to Ephron who owns the land and will pay full price. So intent is he, that even when Ephron offers to just give him the land, Abraham insists on paying. There is no reason, he feels to bargain for something so important. It is Ephron’s land, and he is entitled to compensation. Furthermore, by paying the market value, and doing so publicly, in front of the other Hittites, no one can question the fairness of the transaction or question the transfer of ownership. There are no hard feelings on any side.
What it all boils down to is this. We are living in an era that places a lot of emphasis on winners and losers. The stakes are all or nothing. It seems that sports fans have lost the ability to celebrate success and going deep into the playoffs, and end up mourning in frustration for losing at the highest level with the championship on the line. Fans of the Buffalo Bills only talk about losing 4 Super Bowls in a row, rather than the fact that they had an improbable streak of playing in 4 consecutive Superbowls. I can say, after the 2014 World Series, I did not feel better until the end of the 2015 World Series when at last the Royals won…. But still, I’ll never forget the bitterness feeling of seeing Alex Gordon standing on 3rd base as a weak popup ended that series. I and others had to remind ourselves that sometimes the victory is the excitement, the fun, the exhilarating feeling of hope, and the learning we do, being engaged in new, high stake situations reveling in the satisfaction of having fought hard in an environment of complete fairness. If we could think this way, we could all can be better off for the experience. Some are victorious. Some are runners up. But if we really do it right, we all can be winners.
Maybe our nation’s politics could benefit from such a view.
Elections are no longer about deciding who can lead us with a uniting vision. They have instead become about whose ideology can subjugate the other. In a democratic society, we are supposed to focus on the mutual benefit, not the suppression of the opposition. This is not only about the recent election, but in general. It has been a growing trend for many years. Elections no longer end with mere celebrations and congratulatory statements. They are punctuated by gloating and demands for the losing side to admit abject defeat that the percentage difference is a repudiation of their ideas. Leading up to the election, there was discussion on both sides about whoever won, their party would be in disarray and have to figure out how to rebuild from the ruins. It’s just not likely that both parties could be teetering that close to demise. In actuality, both were probably going to be okay over all, just needing to re-organize, and apply a new strategy. In this environment of perceived winner take all, half the country stops being able to work with the other half of the country. No one is allowed to lose with honor. And winners choose not to win with dignity.
In this environment, we are all losers.
It follows the trend of where I started this talk, the Black Friday sales. We are obsessed with getting the upperhand, finding the best deal, at the expense of others, so much that we ultimately lose ourselves in the process. It is not fun to fight over the last discounted Big Screen TV, or roll of toilet paper, when the ultimate cost is our own humanity. The feeling of satisfaction when we get the deal is fleeting at best. It is counterproductive to living under the rule of loving our neighbors as ourselves— the most important command in all the Torah.
What Abraham did was demonstrate this basic love of the neighbor through fairness and consideration. When he purchased the cave at Machpelah for a fair price, he simultaneously did a lot of things. He protected his own reputation as a fair player and honest broker. He likewise allowed Ephron to be perceived as a straight shooter and good business man. The Hittites looking on, they too gained because they never had to doubt whether these men could be trusted or if they would uphold the greater good. And they learned from this model the lesson we all learn, that when we value and respect our fellow men with fair negotiations, fair prices, and fair competition, everyone is happy and everyone wins in the end.