FROM THE TORAH
Last week’s Sedra Lech-Lecha ended with the circumcision of Abraham and the other males of his household. This week’s Sedra Vayera finds Abraham sitting outside of his tent and providing hospitality to three visitors, supported by his wife Sarah. The visitation is attributed variously to men, the Eternal, and angels. The imminent birth of a son to the elderly couple is predicted. When the Eternal discloses to Abraham His plan to punish the evil city of Sodom, Abraham champions the just treatment of any righteous who may dwell there. By implication, Abraham’s nephew Lot and his two daughters are at least three of them. Circumstances lead to the birth of two sons of Lot by his daughters, progenitors of the nations of Moab and Ammon. In the meantime, Abraham and Sarah, sojourning in Gerar, are exposed to the absolutism of its monarch Avimelech, until God intervenes. Abraham uses the same strategy to avoid disaster there as he did, in last week’s Sedra Lech-Lecha, in Egypt before Pharaoh. The promised birth of Isaac creates conflict with Abraham’s other son and between their respective mothers. There is further conflict between Abraham and Avimelech, resolved by Abraham’s assertive diplomacy. The final major event is God’s test of Abraham’s unconditional allegiance by asking him to return, through sacrifice, Isaac, his only son by Sarah, Isaac being, concomitantly, the physical means of transmitting his covenant with God. The universal importance of the covenant through Abraham and Sarah is reiterated at the end: all the nations of the world shall be blessed through their offspring. The first glimpse of a new chapter is disclosed in the genealogy of Abraham’s brother’s line, which leads to the birth of Rebecca, who will be discovered in the future as Isaac’s wife.
Divine Protection of Abraham and His Family
MESSENGERS BRING PROMISE OF A SON TO ABRAHAM AND SARAH
Now the Eternal appears (Vayera) to him at the terebinths of Mamre, as he sits at the tent’s entrance in the heat of the day. He sees three men standing in his vicinity. He runs to greet them. Bowing to the ground, he says, “O Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight, depart not from Your servant!” He offers the men some water for washing their feet and invites them to recline under one of the trees. Let me offer some bread, sustain yourselves before moving on, for thus have you journeyed to your servant! They accept his offer.
Abraham hastens to Sarah in the tent, beckoning her to knead and produce cakes from three seahs of fine flour. Then he runs to the herd and selects a tender choice calf for his serving lad to prepare quickly. He serves the men the prepared calf along with curd and milk, standing over them under the tree as they eat.
They ask, “Where is Sarah your wife?” “In the tent,” he replies. “I shall return to you at springtide, and Sarah your wife will have a son!” Abraham and Sarah were advanced in years, and Sarah had stopped having the periods of women. Listening at the entrance of the tent behind Abraham, Sarah laughs to herself, wondering how she, worn out, could have such pleasure, “and my husband being old” (Genesis 18:12). The Eternal asks Abraham why Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth “when I am old” (Genesis 18:13). “Is anything too wondrous for the Eternal?” He says. He would return to them at the designated time in the spring, and Sarah will have a son! Out of fear, Sarah denies having laughed, but He knows that she did and tells her so.
THE ETERNAL REVEALS TO ABRAHAM THE PUNISHMENT OF SODOM AND GOMORRAH
From there the men arise and look down upon Sodom, as Abraham walks with them to send them off. The Eternal considers: Should I conceal from Abraham what I am about to do? Abraham is destined to become a great and mighty nation, through which all of the nations of the earth shall be blessed. The purpose of My knowing him is for him to charge his children and his household after him to keep the Eternal’s way of performing righteousness and justice, in order for the Eternal to fulfill His promise to him. The Eternal says: The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is overpowering, as their sin is very heavy. Let Me go down to see if they have acted altogether as their cry; and if not, then I shall know.
As the men depart for Sodom, Abraham is left standing before the Eternal. Abraham then offers an argument: Will You really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Would You wipe it away and not save it for the sake of the fifty righteous within it? Far be it from You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, to treat the righteous and the wicked alike! Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?! The Eternal grants: If I find within Sodom fifty righteous, I shall spare all of that place for their sake.
Abraham then continues: I would presume to speak to the Lord, though I am dust and ashes. He proceeds to argue for the same forbearance if there are even fewer than fifty righteous in the city: forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, or only ten. In every case the Eternal affirms that He would not destroy the city for the sake of the smaller number of righteous, all the way down to ten. As the discussion is concluded, the Eternal departs, and Abraham returns to his place.
THE ANGELS ARRIVE IN SODOM
The two angels arrive in Sodom in the evening. Sitting at the city gate, Lot sees them. He stands up to greet them, then bows his head to the ground. He begs them to spend the night at his home and to resume their journey early the next morning. They express their intention to spend the night in the city plaza, but Lot persuades them to come to his home, where he makes a feast for them and bakes unleavened bread for them. So they eat.
Before they lie down, all the people of Sodom, young and old, surround the house and demand of Lot to bring out the men “who came to you tonight…that we may know them” (Genesis 19:5)! Lot comes out and closes the door behind him. He entreats them not to do evil: I would sooner bring out my two daughters who have not known a man and let you do what you want to them, but do nothing to these men as they have come under the protection of my roof! The people of Sodom warn him to stand back, and they express resentment over “one who comes to sojourn and then sets himself up as judge” (Genesis 19:9)! They threaten to do even worse to Lot and press against him, about to break the door. Whereupon the visiting men extend their hand to take Lot in to them and close the door. They strike the men at the entrance, young and old, with blindness, so that they struggle to find the entrance.
THE MEN SAVE LOT AND HIS FAMILY
Then the visitors urge Lot to take his sons-in-law, sons and daughters, and anyone else that he has in the city, outside of the place, “as the Eternal is sending us to destroy it,” because their outcry is great before the Eternal. But his sons-in-law respond to Lot’s plea as if he were joking. At dawn the angels urge Lot further, “lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city,” but he hesitates. “So the men take hold of his hand and of the hand of his wife and of the hand of his two daughters, with the compassion of the Eternal upon him,” and they remove him from the city. “Flee for your life, do not look back, do not stop anywhere in the plain, flee to the hill lest you be destroyed” (Genesis 19:17)! But Lot discloses to the Lord his fear of lethal harm in the hill country, so He accepts Lot’s request to flee to a nearby city: “It is a small thing, and let my life be saved!” “I will show you favor,” He says, “and not overturn the city which you mention,” but act quickly, because I cannot do anything until you arrive there! For that reason, the name of the city is Tsoar (implying: “a small thing”).
As the sun rose and Lot arrived in Tsoar, the Eternal rained brimstone and fire from heaven upon Sodom and Gomorrah. Not only those cities, but all the plain is overturned, all of their inhabitants, all of the ground’s vegetation. His wife looks back (cf. Genesis 19:17), and she becomes a pillar of salt!
Early the next morning, Abraham hastens to the place where he stood before the Eternal, and he looks down upon those cities and all of the plain: the smoke of the land arose like the smoke of a kiln. With Abraham in mind, God removes Lot from the upheaval. Lot leaves Tsoar, where he fears to live, for the hill country, with his two daughters.
LOT’S DAUGHTERS CONCEIVE FROM THEIR FATHER
Lot and his daughters live in a cave. The older daughter tells the younger, “Our father is old, there is no man in the land to have intercourse with us, let us have our father drink wine and let us lie with him, to produce offspring from our father!” So they do, that night: the older daughter lies with him, he not knowing her lying down and her rising up. The next morning she reports to the younger daughter what she did, and she bids her do the same that night for the same purpose. So do they give their father wine that night and so does the younger daughter lie with him, and so does he not know her lying down and her rising up. Both of Lot’s daughters conceive from their father. The older daughter bears a son and names him Moab (implying: “from father”), and he is the father of Moab to this day. The younger daughter also bears a son. She names him Ben-Ammi (implying: “son of my kin”), and he is the father of the Children of Ammon to this day.
GOD SAVES ABRAHAM AND SARAH FROM AVIMELECH, KING OF GERAR
Abraham journeys from there (cf. Genesis 18:1) to the land of the Negev and resides between Kadesh and Shur. When he sojourns in Gerar, Abraham represents Sarah, who is his wife, as his sister (cf. Genesis 12:10-20). Avimelech, king of Gerar, orders Sarah to be taken to him. God threatens Avimelech, in a night dream, with death for having taken a married woman. Avimelech had not approached her and pleads his innocence before the Lord: “Did he not say to me, ‘She is my sister?’” I have done this in complete innocence of heart and hand! God acknowledges in the dream Avimelech’s innocent intent and explains that He did not allow Avimelech to approach her in order to keep the king from sinning against Him. “So now restore the man’s wife, as he is a prophet, and he will pray for you, that you may live; otherwise, know that you will surely die, you and yours!”
When Avimelech arises early the next morning and discloses the contents of his dream to his servants, they are terrified. Avimelech admonishes Abraham for exposing him and his kingdom to such danger of sin. “You have done to me things which should not be done” (Genesis 20:9)! In his defense Abraham explains, “I felt certain that there is no fear of God in this place, that they will kill me over my wife!” He goes on to explain that although Sarah is not the daughter of his mother, she was the daughter of his father before he married her (Genesis 20:12, possibly assuming that Sarah=Sarai=Yiskah, cf. Genesis 11:29, and that grandchildren are considered as children of their grandparents, cf. Genesis 13:8), and that he had asked her to do him the favor of saying that he is her brother wherever God causes them to journey from his father’s house (cf. Genesis 12:10-20).
Avimelech gives Abraham animals of the flock and herd, male servants and female servants, and he restores to him Sarah his wife. He also invites him to settle in whatever part of his land he might prefer. To Sarah he explains: “I am giving your brother a thousand pieces of silver to hold you harmless, among your own, and before everyone you are vindicated!” Abraham prays to God, and God heals Avimelech and his wife and his concubines, so that they can bear children, for the Eternal had closed up every womb of the house of Avimelech owing to the incident of Sarah, wife of Abraham.
ISAAC IS BORN TO ABRAHAM AND SARAH
The Eternal attends to Sarah, as He promised. She conceives and bears a son to Abraham in his old age, at the time that God foretold. Abraham names him Isaac (Yitzchak), and he circumcises Isaac his son at the age of eight days, as God had commanded him (cf. Genesis 17:12). Abraham is 100 years old when Isaac his son is born to him. “Sarah says: God has played a joke (tz’chok) on me; whoever hears of it will laugh (yitzchak) at me. Who would have told Abraham that Sarah would nurse children, that I would bear a child in his old age!” (Genesis 21:6-7) The child grows and is weaned, and Abraham makes a great feast on the day that Isaac is weaned.
SARAH REJECTS HAGAR AND HER SON
Sarah observes Abraham’s other son, whom Hagar the Egyptian has borne to him (cf. Genesis 16:1-16), playing (metzachek). She demands of Abraham: “Expel that servant and her son, so that the son of that servant does not inherit with my son, with Isaac!” Abraham does not approve of so treating his son, but God deters him from objecting for the sake of either his son or his servant, and instead encourages him to do whatever Sarah says, “for your offspring shall be recognized through Isaac” (Genesis 21:12), and the son of the servant, also, “I shall make into a nation, as he is your offspring” (ibid. 13).
Abraham arises early in the morning and places bread and a skin of water over Hagar’s shoulder, together with the boy, and sends her away. She wanders about in the wilderness of Beersheba until their water is exhausted. She puts the child down under one of the bushes and removes herself a bowshot’s distance to avoid seeing him die. Distraught, she weeps.
GOD INTERVENES FOR HAGAR AND HER SON
God hears the voice of the lad, and His angel calls to Hagar from heaven and tells her not to fear, that God has heard the lad’s voice: “Get up and lift up the lad, hold him with your hand, for I shall make him into a great nation!” God opens her eyes so that she sees a well of water. She goes and fills the skin with water and lets the lad drink. God is with the lad. He grows up and lives in the wilderness, where he is a bow shooter. He settles in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother takes for him a wife from the land of Egypt.
COVENANT OF ABRAHAM AND AVIMELECH
At that time Avimelech (cf. Genesis 20:1-18), together with Phichol his army chief, observes to Abraham: “God is with you in all that you do” (Genesis 21:22). He bids Abraham swear by God that he will not deal falsely with him, and that he will show him and his land of sojourning the same consideration that Avimelech shows him. Abraham so agrees.
Abraham complains to Avimelech that the latter’s servants have seized a certain well of water. Avimelech claims not to know anything about it and that he learned of it only that day. Abraham gives Avimelech sheep and cattle, and the two of them make a covenant. But when Abraham sets aside seven ewes, Avimelech asks Abraham why. Abraham says that Avimelech’s taking those seven ewes from him constitutes “testimony that I dug this well.” For that reason they named that place Beersheba (Be’er Shevah = “Well of Oath” or “Well of Seven”), for there the two of them took an oath. Then Avimelech and Phichol return to the land of the Philistines.
He plants an eshel in Beersheba, and there he calls upon the name of the Eternal, everlasting God. Abraham dwells in the land of the Philistines for many days.
BINDING OF ISAAC
After these events, God puts Abraham to a test. “Abraham,” He says; and he says, “Here I am.” He says: “I bid you take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go you to the land of Moriah, and bring him up there for a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall tell you.” So Abraham arises early in the morning, saddles his ass, and takes two of his lads with him, along with Isaac his son. He splits wood for the burnt offering, arises, and heads for the place of which God spoke.
On the third day, Abraham raises his eyes and sees the place from afar. Abraham says to his lads, “You stay here with the ass, while I and the boy go yonder. We will worship, then we will return to you.”
Abraham takes wood of the burnt offering and places it upon Isaac his son. In his hand he takes the fire and the knife, and the two of them walk together. Isaac speaks to Abraham his father: He says, “Father?” He says, “Here I am, my son.” He says, “Here are the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham answers, “God Himself will see to the lamb for a burnt offering, my son,” and the two of them walk together.
When they arrive at the place of which God had told him, Abraham builds the altar there and arranges the wood. He binds Isaac his son and places him upon the altar, over the wood. Abraham opens his hand and takes the knife to slaughter his son. But an angel of the Eternal calls to him from heaven and says, “Abraham! Abraham!” and he answers, “Here I am!” He says, “Do not put your hand upon the boy, do not do anything to him! For now I know that you fear God, for you have not withheld your son, your only one, from Me.” When Abraham looks up, he sees behind a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham goes and takes the ram and offers it up for a burnt offering in place of his son. Abraham names that place, “Vision of the Eternal,” as is said today, “In the mountain of the Eternal He may be seen.”
BLESSING OF ABRAHAM AND HIS OFFSPRING
The angel of the Eternal calls to Abraham from heaven a second time: I Myself swear, says the Eternal, that because you have not withheld your only son, I shall bring blessing upon you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand upon the shore of the sea. Your offspring shall dispossess the gate of its enemies. All the nations of the earth shall be blessed through your offspring because you have heeded My voice.
Then Abraham returns to his lads. They set out together for Beersheba, and Abraham stays in Beersheba.
OFFSPRING OF NACHOR
After these events, Abraham learns that Milcah too has borne eight sons to Nachor his brother (cf. Genesis 11:26-29): Utz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel father of Aram, Keshed, Chazo, Pildash, Yidlaf, and Bethuel, who begat Rebecca. Reumah his concubine also bore Tevach, Gacham, Tachash, and Ma’acha.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Vayera
II Kings 4:1-37
Divine Protection through the Prophet Elisha
ELISHA RELIEVES THE POVERTY OF A WIDOW
A certain widow of one of the prophets’ disciples cried out to Elisha, in her poverty, that the creditor was coming to seize her two children as slaves. She sought to remind Elisha that her late husband feared the Eternal. Determining that one jug of oil was all that she had in her house, Elisha has her borrow empty vessels from her neighbors, as many as she can, and close up the house for herself and her children. She is to pour oil into each vessel, one at a time, removing each vessel as it is filled. This she does. They keep bringing vessels, and she keeps pouring, until her son tells her that there are no more vessels. With this, the oil stops. When she comes and tells the man of God, he says: Sell the oil, settle your debt; and you and your children, live on the rest.
ELISHA AND THE SHUNAMMITE WOMAN
One day Elisha comes to Shunem, where a notable woman insists on providing him with a meal. Thereafter, whenever he is in the vicinity, he goes there to eat. Perceiving that he is a holy man of God, the woman and her husband make a small roof chamber for him and furnish it with bed, table, chair, and lamp, to be used by him when he is in the vicinity.
On one of his visits, he asks his servant Gechazi to summon the Shunammite woman and to respond to her hospitality by asking if there is anything he can do for her, such as speaking to the king or to the captain. She replies, “I dwell among my kin.” As Elisha was wondering what then could be done for her, Gechazi observes that she has no child and her husband is old. Elisha summons her and tells her, “At this season at springtide, you will embrace a son!” “No, my lord, man of God,” she says, “Do not deceive your servant!” But the woman conceives and bears a son, as Elisha promised.
The child grows, and one day he goes out to his father, to the reapers, and complains of a terrible pain in his head. His father has him brought to his mother. The child sits upon his mother’s knees until noon, when he dies. She lays him down upon the bed of the man of God and closes the door upon him. She bids her husband provide her one of the servants and one of the asses to ride quickly to the man of God. Her husband asks her why, as it is neither New Moon nor Sabbath; she implies that her cause is for Well-being (Shalom). She saddles the ass and instructs the servant to slow down only if she requests as much.
She reaches the man of God at Mount Carmel. When he sees her approach, he sends Gechazi to ask her welfare and that of her husband and that of her son. To him also she replies, “Well-being (Shalom).” But then she approaches the man of God and grabs hold of his feet. Gechazi starts to push her away, but the man of God orders him to let go of her “because her soul is in pain, and the Eternal hid it from me and did not tell me.” “Did I ask for a son from my lord?” she says to Elisha. “Did I not say, ‘Deceive me not?’”
Then Elisha orders Gechazi: Gird your loins, take my staff, and go! Do not take the time to greet anyone on your way, or to return anyone’s greeting. When you get there, place my staff upon the boy’s face. The mother of the boy refuses to leave Elisha, so he rises and follows her. Gechazi has gone ahead and arrives to place the staff upon the face of the boy, but there is no voice and no hearing. He turns back to meet Elisha and tells him that the boy has not awakened. When Elisha comes into the house, the boy is dead, lying upon the bed. Elisha enters and closes the door upon them both and prays to the Eternal. Then he mounts the bed and lies upon the boy, placing his mouth upon his mouth, his eyes upon his eyes, his hands upon his hands, and as he lies upon him, the flesh of the boy grows warm. Then he turns and walks about the house, once this way, once that way, then again mounts and lies over him. The boy sneezes seven times and opens his eyes.
Elisha has Gechazi call the Shunammite woman. She comes to him, and he says, “Take up your son!” She enters and falls upon his feet and bows down to the ground. She takes up her son and goes out.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Genesis Rabbah 48:7
Sitting and Standing
“The Eternal appeared to Abraham at the terebinths of Mamre,
and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent…”
Rabbi Berechia in the name of Rabbi Levi: At first “Abraham was sitting,” but when the Eternal appeared to him, he tried to stand up out of respect. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Remain sitting, and thereby you will be a sign for your children—for just as you sit and the Shechinah (Divine Presence) stands, so shall your children sit and the Shechinah shall stand above them during the Recitation of Shema. When Israel enter their Houses of Prayer and their Houses of Study to recite the Shema, they remain seated in My honor, while I in My honor stand over them, as was said, “God takes His stand in the Godly congregation” (Psalms 82:1).
Although, as Rabbi Chaggai in the name of Rabbi Isaac points out, the verse does not actually say, “God stands,” but “God takes His stand,” it may be understood as when the Eternal said to Moses, “Here is a place (that will be) with Me: now take your stand (anticipate Me) upon the rock” (Exodus 33:21), as the prophet explains, “It shall be that before they call out, I shall answer” (Isaiah 65:24)!
“You are holy,
sitting (amid) the praises of Israel!”
Rabbi Samuel son of Chiya and Rabbi Yudan in the name of Rabbi Chaninah:
Not that He sits when Israel praises,
but for every word of praise that Israel offer to the Holy One, blessed be He,
He sets His Shechinah upon them:
“You are holy,
set amid the praises of Israel!”
Talmud Bava Metziah 86b
The Hospitality of Abraham
“The Eternal appeared to Abraham at the terebinths of Mamre,
as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.”
According to Rabbi Chama son of Rabbi Chaninah, it was the third day of his circumcision (cf. Genesis 17:26), and the Holy One, blessed be He, had come to inquire of his recovery. Why “in the heat of the day?” Because the Holy One, blessed be He, brought the hot sun out of its sheath to shine brightly and discourage people from moving about so that the righteous one would not be worn out from greeting them! But Abraham, missing his opportunity to show hospitality, sent his servant Eliezer outside to find travelers anyway. Eliezer reported that he had found none, and Abraham did not believe him! So Abraham himself then went outside to “sit at the entrance of the tent” (ibid. 1b).
“He lifted his eyes and saw…”
There he saw the Holy One, blessed be He, standing at the entrance!
“He said, ‘O Lord, if I have found favor in Your sight,
pass not away from Your servant!’”
He greeted Him, identifying himself as His “servant.” But when God saw that Abraham was adjusting the bandages of his circumcision, indicating that Abraham was in pain, He said: It is not right for Me to stand here!
“So instead, three men were stationed by him,
and Abraham saw them…”
At first they were standing near him, but when they too saw that he was in pain, they also said: It is not right for us to stand here! So they removed themselves to a distance. Nonetheless:
“Abraham ran to greet them from the entrance of the tent
and prostrated himself upon the ground!”
Genesis Rabbah 48:18
“I shall return to you at springtide,
and Sarah your wife will have a son!”
“Sarah laughs to herself,
wondering how she, worn out, could have such pleasure,
“’and my husband being old.’”
Bar Kappara taught: Great is peace, for even the sacred text speaks falsely in order to maintain peace between Abraham and Sarah. Sarah laughs to herself, wondering how she, worn out, could have such pleasure, “and my husband being old” (Genesis 18:12). But the Eternal does not repeat those words to Abraham. Instead He asks Abraham why Sarah laughed at the prospect of giving birth “when I (Sarah) am old” (Genesis 18:13)!
Genesis Rabbah 49:6
Opportunities for Repentance
“The Eternal says:
The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is overpowering,
as their sin is very heavy.
Let Me go down to see
if they have acted altogether as their cry;
and if not, then I shall know.”
At first glance it would seem as if the Eternal did not know if their “actions” matched their “cry,” until He might “go down to see.” But that would imply that God was less than omnipresent/omniscient.
So Rabbi Abba bar Kahana explained that the Omnipresent was “going down” to give them the opportunity for teshuvah (repentance): “Let Me go down to see” if they will repent for “their acts which match their cry,” or “if not,” if they fail to repent,” then I shall “make known to the world” the just punishment that they shall receive!
Rabbi Levi explained our verse in accordance with the prophet’s words:
“Behold, this was the sin of Sodom your sister…:
Despite an abundance of food,
she did not support
the poor and the needy!”
Since “their cry” (Genesis 18:21) more precisely (in Hebrew) is “her cry” (presumably referring to the city’s cry), we can also understand it to refer to the cry of the righteous maiden of Sodom who went down to the river to fill her pitcher with water. There she encountered another maiden who was starving. So she filled her pitcher with food and secretly exchanged hers with the needy girl’s. But the secret was revealed, and when the townspeople found out, they were offended and burned her to death. So said the Holy One, blessed be He: Even if I wanted to keep silent, I could not because of “her cry,” the cry of the charitable maiden who violated the cruel decree of Sodom against charity and was burned as a result. So will I “make known to the world” the just punishment that they shall receive!
Rabbi Jeremiah son of Elazar applied the sage’s words accordingly:
“The One who moves mountains,
and they do not know,
Who overturns them
in His anger!”
The Holy One, blessed be He, gave to Sodom years of opportunity for repentance in the form of phenomena. He brought earthquakes upon them in order to alert them to the need for repentance from their evil practices, but “they,” the people of Sodom, “did not know,” that is, they paid no heed. In the end He overturned “them,” the people of Sodom, in His anger!”
Genesis Rabbah 49:9
Justice or Mercy?
“Abraham draws near and says:
Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?
Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city.
Would You wipe it away and not save it
for the sake of the fifty righteous within it?…
Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice!”
Rabbi Levi said: Understand these words not as Abraham’s rhetorical question of God, “Shall the Judge of all the earth not do justice?” but rather as the plea, “The Judge of all the earth should not do justice!” If You want a world, he was saying, there cannot be strict justice; and if You want only justice, there will not be a world! You are pulling the rope at both ends: You want a world and You want justice. If You do not compromise a little, the world will not be able to exist!
Rabbi Levi’s drash actually reveals that, notwithstanding Abraham’s apparent demand for justice from the Judge, he was actually appealing for mercy for the entire city, that the Judge should not do only justice—which would entail punishing only the wicked—but spare the entire city for the sake of a righteous minority!
Genesis Rabbah 54:6
What did Abraham plant?
“He planted an eshel in Beersheba,
and there he called upon the name of the Eternal, everlasting God.”
What did Abraham plant?
In accordance with the letters of the word eshel [shin/alef/lamed], which mean “request,” the implication is: You may request whatever you wish! Therefore Rabbi Judah said that eshel means orchard, and Abraham planted an orchard, of which you may ask for whatever you wish, for example: You may ask for figs, grapes, or pomegranates!
Rabbi Azariah in the name of Rabbi Judah son of Rabbi Simone pointed to a Scriptural derivation based on its location in Ramah, “Saul was sitting on a hill under the eshel in Ramah…” (I Samuel 22:6). “Ramah is where Samuel judged Israel” (ibid. 7:17). So: “When Saul learned that David was discovered, he sat in judgment of David on a hill under the eshel in Ramah…and all of his servants (the men of the Sanhedrin) stood around him” (ibid. 22:6)! According to this interpretation, Abraham planted the eshel, a tree for shade and comfort, at Ramah for the future Sanhedrin!
Rabbi Nechemia said that eshel, based upon its letters [shin/alef/lamed], which mean “request,” was an inn, where you may ask for whatever you wish. For example, you may ask for pressed figs, meat, wine, or eggs! So Abraham “planted” an inn, in the sense of “established,” in order to provide hospitality for travelers. When they dined with him, he would encourage them to recite a blessing. “What should we say?” they asked him. He provided them with the words, “Blessed is the Eternal God, from whom we have received our food!” as is written, “And there he caused them to call upon the Name of the Eternal, everlasting God” (Genesis 21:33b).
Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
Jealous Words Provoke the Test
“After these events, God puts Abraham to a test.”
The word for “events” (devarim) can also mean “words”:
Said Rabbi Yochanan in the name of Rabbi Yosi ben Zimra: It was “after these words” of Satan to God, as is written, “The child (Isaac) grows up and is weaned, and Abraham makes a great feast on the day that Isaac is weaned” (Genesis 21:8). Said Satan before the Holy One, blessed be He: You have been gracious to this old man at the age of 100 with fruit of the womb, but of all the feast that he has made he has not offered to You even one turtledove or pigeon! The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: Did he do this for anything other than his son? Yet, if I were to say to him, “Sacrifice your son to Me,” without delay he would sacrifice him!—Immediately (“after these words” of Satan): “God puts Abraham to a test!”
Rabbi Levi said: It was “after these words” of Ishmael to Isaac. Ishmael said to Isaac: I am greater than you, for while you were circumcised only at the age of 8 days, I was circumcised when I was 13 years old! Isaac replied: For one part of my body you impugn me? If the Holy One, blessed be He, were to say to me, “Sacrifice all of yourself to Me,” I would not refuse!—Immediately (“after these words” of Ishmael): “God puts Abraham to a test!”
Mishnah Avot 5:3
“Abraham our Father was tried by ten trials,
and he withstood all of them—
in order to make known how great was his love.”
According to Rambam (Maimonides), these were the trials:
1. Exile from Family and Homeland
2. Famine in Canaan
3. Abduction of Sarah in Egypt
4. War with the Four Kings
5. Marriage to Hagar
6. Commandment of Circumcision
7. Abduction of Sarah by Avimelech
8. Expulsion of Hagar
9. Expulsion of Ishmael
10. Binding of Isaac
Talmud Sanhedrin 89b
God’s Choice of Words
He says: “Take, please, your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac,
and go you to the land of Moriah,
and offer him up there for a burnt offering
on one of the mountains that I shall tell you…”
Said Rabbi Shimon son of Rabbi Abba: “Please” is the language of entreaty. The Holy One, blessed be He, was saying to him: I have put you through many trials (see above, Mishnah Avot 5:3), and you have stood through them. Why one more? So that no one can say: The first ones were not really trials!
When He said to him, “Take your son,” Abraham replied: But I have two sons! Then He said to him, “Your only son,” and he replied: Each one is the only son of his respective mother! Then He said to him, “Whom you love,” and he replied: Both of them are beloved to me! Finally, He said to him, “Isaac!” But why all of this? In order to attenuate the shock.
Mishnah Ta’anit 16:1
Instruction or Fear
“…and go you to the land of Moriah,
and bring him up there for a burnt offering
on one of the mountains that I shall tell you.”
What is the meaning of Moriah? Different views are expressed by Rabbi Levi bar Chama and Rabbi Chaninah. One said: The mountain from which emanates Instruction (Hora’ah) to Israel. And one said: The mountain from which emanates Fear (Morah) to the rest of the world.
Genesis Rabbah 56:8
What About the Covenant?
“Abraham opens his hand
and takes the knife to slaughter his son.”
Does this foretell the prophet’s words?
“The highways are destroyed,
wayfarers have ceased,
He has abrogated the covenant,
He has despised the cities,
He regards no man!”
As he opens his hand to take the knife, his eyes weep tears that fall into the eyes of Isaac. These tears are the product of a father’s compassion. Nonetheless his heart rejoices to fulfill the will of his Creator. But the angels assemble in protest above! What do they cry? “The highways are destroyed, wayfarers have ceased, He has abrogated the covenant, He has despised the cities….” Is His desire no more in Jerusalem or in the Temple, which He intended to bequeath to the descendants of Isaac? And if no merit stands for Abraham in the sight of the Holy One, blessed be He, then surely, “…He regards no man!”
Rabbi Acha taught:
Abraham began to wonder. Yesterday You said, “Your offspring shall be recognized through Isaac” (Genesis 21:12). Then You turn around and say, “Take, please, your son…” (Genesis 22:2). And now You tell me, “Do not put your hand upon the boy…” (Genesis 22:12)! But the Holy One, blessed be He, reassured him: “I will not violate My covenant…” (Psalms 89:35a), “I will uphold My covenant with Isaac…” (Genesis 17:21a), “…That which is brought forth from My lips I shall not alter” (Psalms 89:35b).
When I said, “Take, please, your son.…” (Genesis 22:2), I did not say, “Slaughter him!” but, “Bring him up” not in the sense of “offer him up” (Genesis 22:2b)! Out of affection I said it, in order that I could behold him. Now that you have brought him up and fulfilled My request, bring him down! Such is written: “They built shrines to Baal…which I never commanded, never decreed, it never came up upon My heart (never came to mind)” (Jeremiah 19:5)!
Yerushalmi Ta’anit 2:4
To the End of Redemption
It is taught in a baraitha:
Said Abraham before the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the universe, You know that at the time when You said to me, “Bring him up there for a burnt offering” (Genesis 22:2b), I had the following to say in response: Yesterday You said to me that through Isaac offspring shall be called yours, but now You say to me to offer him up for a burnt offering! Yet I have conquered my impulse in order to do Your will. Therefore, may it be Your will, that at the time when Isaac’s children might enter into danger and there is no one who will advocate on their behalf, may You advocate on their behalf!
Zichronot (Remembrance) in the Rosh Hashanah Machzor: “There is no forgetfulness before Your throne of glory, and may You mercifully remember today the binding of Isaac for the sake of his offspring!”
“When Abraham looks up,
he sees, behind, a ram
caught in the thicket by its horns.”
What is the meaning of “Abraham sees behind?” Said Rabbi Yudah son of Rabbi Simon: Abraham sees the future (“behind” indicates the future because the future cannot be seen by most people): What does he see? Your children will be caught up in their sins and entangled in sufferings, but ultimately they will be redeemed by the horns of this ram, as was said, “The Lord God will blow the Shofar and will advance with tempests of wind” (Zechariah 9:14)!
Rabbi Huna in the name of Rabbi Chinenah bar Yitzchak: All that day Abraham observed the ram, first caught in a tree, extricated, then ensnared in a bush, extricated, then entangled in a thicket, then extricated and freed. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Abraham: Similarly, your children shall in the future be caught in their iniquities, ensnared in kingdoms, from Babylonia to Media, from Media to Greece, from Greece to Edom (Rome). He asked the Holy One, blessed be He: Shall it be that way forever? He replied: In the end they shall be redeemed by the horns of this ram. “The Lord God will blow the Shofar and will advance with tempests of wind!” (Zechariah 9:14)
Genesis Rabbah 58:2
Succession of the Righteous
“The sun rises, and the sun sets…”
Said Rabbi Abba bar Kahana: Do we not already know that the sun rises and the sun sets? What does the sage teach us with this verse? What he teaches us is that before the Holy One, blessed be He, allows the sun of one righteous person to set, He causes the sun of a righteous successor to rise. On the day that Rabbi Akiba died, our Rabbi (Judah Hanasi) was born, and they cited this verse for him: First “the sun rises, and” then “the sun sets.”
Before the Holy One, blessed be He, let the sun of Sarah set, He caused the sun of Rebecca to rise: First we have, “Abraham learns that Milcah too has borne eight sons to Nachor his brother: Utz his firstborn, Buz his brother, Kemuel father of Aram, Keshed, Chazo, Pildash, Yidlaf, and Bethuel, who begat Rebecca” (Genesis 22:20-23). Only then we read, at the beginning of the next Sedra Chaye Sarah, “Sarah dies at Kiryat Arba…” (Genesis 23:2).
Talmud Berachot 43b
The Holiness of Elisha
“The Eternal God made the man
of dust from the earth,
and He blew into his nostrils
the breath of life,
so that the man became
a living being.”
“Let everything that has breath
praise the Eternal…”
Rav Zutra bar Tuvia said that Rav taught:
Whence do we derive the obligation
to recite a benediction over the fragrant aroma?
“For everything that benefits breath
praise the Eternal” (Psalms 150:6),
and what is it, uniquely, that gives pleasure to the breath?
The fragrant aroma!
One day the Prophet Elisha comes to Shunem. A notable woman treats him as a guest in her home and insists on providing him with a meal. Her hospitality is what makes her notable, as others of her time and place tended to oppress and exploit visitors.
“She says to her husband, ‘Look, I know, that he is a holy man of God…let us make a small attic chamber for him with a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that he can stop there when he comes to us…’” (II Kings 4:9ff.). But how did she know that he was a holy man? Rav and Samuel differed on this: One said that it is because she never saw a fly passing over his table, and the other said that she spread a linen sheet upon his bed and never saw evidence of a nocturnal emission. (Talmud Berachot 10b)
But neither of these reasons is sufficient. She said to her husband, “I know,” but if no fly ever passed over his table, others as well as she could have taken note of this when he ate. As far as the lack of nocturnal emission is concerned, it is not rare that some men have no nocturnal emissions.
Yet the key to her knowing, to the exclusion of others, does lie in the fact that she spread a linen sheet upon his bed and made his bed in the morning. Normally, after the sheet has been used throughout the night for sleeping, in the morning it emits a foul odor, which she would have noticed. But in the case of Elisha, in the morning, when the woman lifted the sheet upon which he had slept, fragrances of the Garden of Eden emanated from the sheet, causing her to conclude: If he is not holy, and the holiness of his Lord is not upon him, then I would not have smelled the holy fragrance from the sheet!
Copyright © 2021 Eric H. Hoffman