Chayei Sarah - Business Ethics
When a buyer uses pressure tactics to persuade the seller to sell against his will, does this constitute unethical conduct?
At the outset of this week's Parsha, Avraham Avinu seeks out a gravesite for his wife Sarah, and not just any ordinary gravesite. Avraham wishes to bury her in the Machpela cave, a place where Adam and Eve were buried previously. The cave-grave is situated in the lands of Efron the Chittite, so Avraham sets out to meet the leaders of the Chittite nation and requests a burial place "among them". When they respond positively and say that they are willing to offer him any burial spot he wants among them, he asks them to importune Efron to sell him the Machpela cave. Efron is actually present among the Hittites and immediately announces that he will give Avraham the cave free of charge. Avraham, however, is not deterred and demands to pay the full price for the cave and then Efron names his price and Avraham concludes the purchase.
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A number of things may trouble us about this account. Avraham originally turns to the Hittites and requests a burial place among them. If he knows that he wants the Machpela cave, why doesn't he turn directly to Efron and ask him to sell it to him? It appears that Avraham is trying to use his prestige in the eyes of the Hittites to pressure Efron in order to obtain the burial place he wants. Is this a permitted pressure tactic towards a reluctant seller?
Moreover, Efron originally says that he is willing to give Avraham the grave for free. Avraham has no reason to presume that Efron is being disingenuous, so why does he insist on paying for the cave? After all, his original request had been to receive a burial place among the Hittites and he had not requested to pay for it.
There are a number of clues which may help explain Avraham's behavior. Firstly Avraham does not want to make an impression that he is only willing to bury Sarah in the Machpela cave. This would make the price of the cave rise steeply and Avraham has no intention of overpaying. Indeed, Halacha allows a person to hide his cards and give an impression that he does not need a particular commodity even though he does, in order that the commodity should be offered to him at a fair market price ( see Midrash Tehillim 12 where this advice is given by one of the sages to another). Therefore Avraham asks simply for a burial site, and when this is freely offered he asks the Chitites to negotiate with Efron so that he will sell his cave. Avraham has no illusions that if he directly approaches Efron he will be charged well above the market price but he hopes that the local realtors will be able to negotiate a fair price for both sides.
However Avraham's strategy backfires, since Efron himself is sitting among the Chittites and surprisingly agrees to give Avraham the cave gratis. Avraham then notices a subtlety in Efron's behavior. Efron says "before the eyes of my people, I have given (the cave) to you, bury your dead!" It sounds to Avraham as if Efron is pressured by the original statement of the Chitites that they would give any burial spot to Avraham and therefore is posturing before his nation even though he himself would want money for the cave. For this reason Avraham once again insists on paying for the field. In the next verse we read that Efron answers Avraham "saying to him". These additional words hint at the fact that Efron's final demand is made in private after he and Avraham have gone to the side to negotiate. This idea is also supported by the next verse, where Efron says "between me and you, what is four hundred talents", implying that the deal is being concluded privately.
What lessons can we derive from this story? As Chazal teach us, the book of Bereishit is known as "Sefer Hayashar", "the book of the honest", as it teaches us the conduct of the Avot who were scrupulously honest in their dealings with others. In this instance we can learn a number of lessons in negotiation tactics:
1) One may use bluffing to disguise what one needs in order to achieve a fair price.
2) One may use intermediaries to try and obtain a fair price rather than being forced to pay above market when one does not know an equitable price.
3) One may not pressure a seller into selling at a lower price than he had intended, and if one sees that others are pressuring the seller, one should try and negotiate with him directly in order to ascertain his preferred price.
Ultimately Efron is criticized by Chazal for his avarice, as he originally agreed to give the cave for free and then sold it to Avraham for a hefty price, but Avraham himself teaches us a valuable lesson in how to do business with integrity.