Listening is the key during a conversation

At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, Sarah dies in what is now called Hebron and Abraham enters into negotiations to buy the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his beloved wife.
Ephron, the Hittite, owned the Cave of Machpelah and first offered it as a gift to Abraham, but Abraham refused. He wished to buy the cave outright and asked for the price. Ephron replied, naming an outrageous price, “My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver — what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.”
Abraham paid the asking price without haggling and “thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.” Why didn’t Abraham haggle, as would be expected? Why did he simply pay the outrageous asking price?
I am reminded of how I purchased my backgammon set in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem when I was a graduate student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion the first year I was studying to become a rabbi. I was poor, but desperately wanted an inlaid wood backgammon/chess set and decided to see what was available one morning when I was going to the Kotel with a friend. We entered a shop on the narrow street deep in the market and looked at a beautiful set. “Inlaid with genuine mother-of-pearl,” the shopkeeper claimed, and while there was no way that claim was true, it was, nevertheless, a beautiful set. “Only 400 shekels.”
For me, a poor graduate student, 400 shekels was a couple months of my food budget and far more than I wanted to spend. “It is a beautiful set, but I can’t afford it,” and I started to back away. “How much will you pay for it?” “I’m sorry I bothered you, I just can’t afford it.” “200 shekels?”’ “400 or 200, it’s more than I can afford.” “How much did you want to pay?”
At this point, I was a little ashamed at my poverty and just wanted to get out of the shop, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. “I only wanted to spend 50 shekels.” “This is worth far more than 50 shekels.” “I know. I’m sorry I bothered you.” “100 shekels.” I tried to leave the shop. “70 shekels.” “Come on, Ben, just buy it and let’s go,” my friend urged me. “It’s only an extra $5.” So for 70 shekels, I bought a beautiful backgammon set with fake mother-of-pearl inlay and a great story thrown in free.
The shopkeeper and I were in the same conversation, but speaking about two different things. He thought I was bargaining politely, praising his wares while claiming poverty as an excuse to get the price down. I thought I was trying to get out of an embarrassing situation. Ephron thought he was providing an opening bargaining position, stating an outrageously high price. Abraham was trying to establish legal ownership of the Cave of Machpelah without any future claims against it that the sale was coerced or at too low a price.
Sometimes, when we’re talking with people it seems like we’re talking past each other and not even having the same conversation. That’s because we aren’t. We need to listen to each other, trying to understand what they are saying from their perspective before we can truly have a conversation, rather than talking at cross purposes.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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