Following the death of his wife Sarah, Avraham purchases the Machpela cave from Ephron the Hittite to use as a burial site. Ephron makes it sound as if he is prepared to give the cave to Avraham, but in the end takes a tremendous sum for the property.
At the end of the story, as Ephron takes his money [Gen. 23:16], the Torah spells his name without the letter Vav — so one could pronounce the name as Afran, from the word Afar, dirt. Ephron is considered a “person of the dirt,” because, as Rashi explains, “he said a lot, and didn’t even do a little.” Everything was for show and self-glorification, while in reality he was not a charitable person at all.
Avraham, by contrast, declared himself to be “dirt and ashes” in last week’s reading, as he begged G-d to spare Sodom [18:27]. And who was Avraham? The person who recognized G-d’s Presence in the world and rose to prophecy by himself, with no one to educate him, and devoted himself to sharing knowledge of HaShem with the world. Yet even at the moment that G-d Himself shared with Avraham what he intended to do, Avraham, rather than feeling at all self-important, says of himself that he’s nothing but dirt.
Our Sages tell us that the test of a person in this world is the extent to which he or she can rise above physical nature. It is “natural” to want all the pleasures of this world, to want money to be able to indulge in them, and to seek honor. But who is, in the end, admired? One who sacrifices for the spiritual, e.g. to study Torah, and is charitable with his or her money, and who honors others while being self-effacing. Ephron, who sought prestige and portrayed himself as generous while coveting wealth, is recorded as a person of “dirt,” dragged down into the material world. And Avraham, who spoke about our human origins in “the dust of the earth,” became the father of the Jewish nation.