The Torah tells us “Ephron said, what is 400 shekels kesef between us,”
Ephron sounds like a good hearted man, willing to do chesed, even at a major expense. And yet, when Avraham says “I want to pay,” Chazal tell us that Ephron wanted coins that were “over l’socher” – the most liquid cash. The question is obvious: Was Ephron a kind hearted person who wanted to have a relationship with Avraham Avinu, or was he a businessman trying to squeeze out the last cent he could?
The Saba from Kelm compares this to the famous story of the Rambam and the priest who argued if one could teach an animal to behave like a human. The showdown came when the priest trained a cat to be a waiter at an exclusive dinner. All were amazed at the eloquence and grace with which the cat served the food. It seemed clear that the Rambam was not only going to lose the debate, but was going to lose his head!
Shortly before the end of the meal, the Rambam took a mouse out of a package in his pocket and let it loose in the room. The moment the cat saw the mouse, it forgot about its eloquence and manners, and reverted back to being a cat, turning over all the tables and plates in his mad dash to pounce on the mouse. At this point it became clear that a cat will always remain a cat.
So too, many people though they are greedy, because of external pressures (such as honor, peer pressure, etc.) will act almost “saintly.” But that is only until the point when the lure becomes real. When Avraham took out his wallet and Ephron saw the large amount of cash that Avraham had, he lost his inhibitions and reverted back to his true selfish self.
We are familiar with this idea with regards to the one piece of chicken which was left on the serving dish on the table, and all the guests around the table were being polite and not taking it—until the lights went out…
The Torah is telling us that Ephron and a cat can’t change. Chazal teach us that through the Torah and mitzvos have the ability to truly change inside. May we merit to rid ourselves of the beast within.