Keeping your commitments and your word through a silent handshake means a lot to me. That was how I was brought up, to honor others through your actions. When I contemplate the subject of speech and silence, Rabbi Shammai’s famous teaching “say little and do much” (Avot 1:15) comes to mind.
put your money where your mouth is
The Sages quote this teaching from Shammai when they comment on Abraham’s quest to acquire a burial cave for his wife, Sarah. While Abraham is in mourning he sees his first opportunity to put roots down in the Promised Land. The cave of Machpelah in Hebron was within the land of the Hittites, and Ephron the son of Zohar negotiated the sale with Abraham.
Now Ephron was sitting in the midst of the sons of Heth, and Ephron the Hittite answered Abraham in the hearing of the sons of Heth, of all those who had come into the gate of his city, saying, "No, my lord, listen to me. I have given you the field, and the cave that is in it, I have given it to you. Before the eyes of the sons of my people, I have given it to you; bury your dead." (Gen. 23:10-11)
Wow, such a deal, but too good to be true? Abraham was an old, wise, and discerning man. He knew Ephron was a talker, so he insisted on paying a fair price so no later claims could be made on the land. He didn’t want this important burial site “un-gifted”.
And Ephron replied to Abraham, saying to him, "My lord, listen to me; a [piece of] land worth four hundred shekels of silver, what is it between me and you? Bury your dead."
Well, so now the talk isn’t so cheap. In today’s prices (2011), that’s about a million dollars of silver! With this one negotiation, the Torah shows us how important our speech is. Ephron, likely a newly appointed governor of the Hittites, talks like any proper politician – out of both sides of his mouth. He offers to give the field away, and in almost the same syllable charges a fortune.
The Meam Loez commentary gives us some important details:
In the Torah, Ephron is usually spelled with a Vav. In this case, however, it is written without the Vav. This indicates that Ephron's stature had been reduced. He had promised much but had delivered little. When Abraham wanted to pay, he demanded full- size coins that would be universally negotiable.
In its abbreviated form, the numerical value of Ephron is 400. [Ayin is 70, Peh is 80, Resh is 200, and Nun is 50]. This is also the numerical value of Ayin Ra, meaning "Evil Eye." This indicates that since he had the audacity to demand such a large sum, he was actually a low-class individual. The Torah therefore deletes a letter from his name. Furthermore, he was punished for his jealousy of Abraham and for giving him the evil eye.
The Sages contrast the greed, jealousy, and empty talk of Ephron with the actions of Abraham. When three angels visit Abraham after his brit milah, Abraham offers to fetch them a “morsel of bread” (see Gen. 18:5), but he and Sarah prepare a feast. These actions aptly fit the advice of Shammai, “say little and do much”.
invest in your words
Not much has changed since Abraham’s day. In fact, in a world where communication is so much more available, talk is cheaper than it has ever been. It is easier than ever to inflate our speech to make ourselves look and feel more important. Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that if we say something out loud, we will be more committed in doing it. This isn’t a good practice, especially if we tend not to think before we speak. Watch people who have character of quality. These individuals go through their day getting things done, helping the people familiar to them as well as strangers, without any fanfare or bloated words. These are the ones who silently build up the world and make it a better place.
Again, you have heard that it was said to the first ones, “You shall not swear falsely, but you shall perform your oaths to HaShem.” Yet I say to you, you shall not swear any oath – not by heaven, for it is the throne of God, nor by the earth, for it is his footstool, nor by Yerushalayim, for it is the city of the great King. Not even by the life of your head shall you swear, since you are unable to turn one hair black of white. Instead, let your words be “yes, yes; no, no”; anything beyond this is from the evil one. – Matt. 5:33–37 DHE
Yeshua teaches us that our words matter. We'd better not make promises we can’t keep, and better yet don’t make a promise—just deliver. When you make your words few, meaningful, and reliable, those around you will value every one. Your talk won’t be cheap, it will be as rich as the treasures in heaven stored with your good works. Besides, what are 400 shekels of good deeds between you and me? Say little and do much.