This Shabbos we read Parshas Chayai Sarah. The Parsha begins with the story of the passing of Sarah the wife of Abraham. When she passed away, Abraham wanted to bury her in Hebron, in the cave of the Patriarchs. The cave was owned by a Chittite named Ephron. When Abraham asked to buy it, Ephron told him that he refused to take money for it, but would give it to Abraham as a present. Abraham insisted on paying for it, and finally Ephron named his price as being 400 Silver coins – a price that our Sages explain was exorbitant for the field. He then insisted on being paid with coins that were the highest quality – which made a tremendous difference in their value in those days (when the value of money was determined by the actual silver content and not by the paper value).
The commentaries are bothered by the startling change in the behavior of Ephron: One minute he is acting like the nicest and most generous person, and the next minute he is out to grab every penny he can. How do we understand the drastic change?
There is a beautiful story of a disagreement that Maimonides had with a philosopher. The philosopher claimed that he could change a cat and make him act like a person. Maimonides said this was impossible. They agreed to make a contest. When the day of the contest came, the philosopher brought a cat that he had trained to be a waiter. The cat served an entire meal, and the audience was amazed. Just as they stared and assumed that Maimonides had been proven wrong, Maimonides took out a container from his pocket. He opened it up and a mouse ran by. The cat saw the mouse, dropped the tray of dishes that he was holding, breaking them all, and ran after the mouse. Maimonides was proven right, and everyone agreed that no matter what, a cat is a cat. As much as he may be trained to act in a particular way, he is still inherently a cat and must be treated as such.
This is the idea of Ephron. Before he saw money in front of him, he acted in a very sophisticated and refined manner. He spoke like a generous and special person. However, when he saw money with Abraham, he changed totally. His true inner being came out, as he showed what a greedy and money hungry person he was.
This lesson is very important to understand as we try to work on ourselves. We may feel that we want to change and improve. However, to really become a different person and change, is only possible if we study Torah. If not, we are like the cat that may change for the moment but will emerge with its true essence as soon as the moment of challenge emerges.