This week's parsha
Someone Has to Pay Retail
A friend of mine used to be mortified when shopping with his mother over her insistence on haggling over each and every item purchased. She would negotiate with everyone: storeowners, door-to-door salesmen, even the check-out clerks at the supermarket. Poor kid would be absolutely squirming with embarrassment every time his mother went through her "is this the best price you can offer?" routine.
He must have picked up something though, because now he's the one intimidating shop assistants and bargain hunting his way through life. He claims it's not Jewish to pay retail and the only thing better than 50% off, is 2 for the price of 1.
Strange then that the archetype Jew, our ancestor Abraham, turned down an even better bargain. After his beloved wife passed away, Abraham went plot shopping. He discovered the perfect piece of real estate, a burial cave in Hebron, and enquired about the purchase price.
He was offered the "bargain" of a lifetime: free land. The locals held him in such high regard that they begged him to accept the burial plot, free of charge. Incredibly, not only did he refuse this gift, Abraham insisted on paying full price on his eventual purchase (Genesis 23:9).
But why be so high-principled? Would it have made a difference had he graciously accepted their offer? Why should the way in which he assumed possession affect the end-use of the land?
What's wrong with it?
My wife Leah and I recently noticed something peculiar about the functions we organize for our synagogue. Over the years we've played around with a number of formats and systems to attract locals and members to Torah classes and activities. When we first started, we believed that advertising free-entry was a sure catch to draw in the locals. After all, aren't we here to demonstrate the accessibility and appeal of Judaism?
On reflection, we've noticed that those lecture-series and programs for which we advertise a cover charge seem to attract almost double the turnout than for those where we charge no entry fee, and rely on outside sponsorship to make up the shortfall. Of course we make certain to publicize that no one will ever be turned away for lack of funds, but in general we now charge at least a token fee for most activities.
Not only does this not seem to deter attendance, but I honestly believe people value their time more for having paid for it. It is almost as if when people shell out for entertainment, they give themselves the liberty to drain the cup of amusement to the full, and make certain to gain as much as possible from the lecture and classes they've paid for. Economists have some fancy formula describing how people are influenced by the "sunk-cost," but from my observation, people become suspicious when offered something for free.
Abraham was not just looking for a cheap plot in which to bury his wife; he was investing in the future. His children and grandchildren visit that burial site till today and when we pray to G‑d there, and ask our zeida and bubbe to intercede on our behalf, we're demonstrating our appreciation for his priorities.
Bargain hunting for luxuries may be fun, but when it comes to the fundamentals of life: our professional pride, choice of spouse, and commitment to G‑d, everyone wants to know that they've put in maximum effort to succeed, and that the final reward will be worth the price.