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Torah Sparks

Parashat Vayera
October 19, 2013 – 15 Heshvan 5774

Annual (Genesis 18:1-22:24): Etz Hayim p. 99; Hertz p. 63
Triennial (Genesis 18:1-18:33): Etz Hayim p. 99, Hertz p. 63
Haftarah (II Kings 4:1-37): Etz Hayim p. 124; Hertz p. 76

Prepared by Rabbi Adam Rosenbaum
Charleston, SC

Visited by three strangers, Abraham shows gracious hospitality. The strangers announce that Sarah will become pregnant. Sarah laughs at the suggestion.

God informs Abraham of plans to destroy Sodom and Amorah. Abraham, knowing that his nephew Lot lives in Sodom, convinces God to spare the cities if ten righteous men could be found there. That proves impossible, so Lot and his family are rescued from Sodom, narrowly escaping the wrath of their depraved neighbors. Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt after looking back at the destroyed cities. Thinking that they are the last people on earth, Lot’s daughters get their father drunk and become pregnant by him.

Abraham and his family meet King Avimelech of Gerar. Sarah is identified as Abraham’s sister, and the king captures her; only God’s intercession forces Avimelech to release her and the household. Abraham and Avimelech later agree to a truce and establish the city of Be’er Sheva.

Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac. When Sarah suspects Ishmael of foul play, she banishes Ishmael and Hagar from the house. On the brink of death, Hagar is promised by God that Ishmael will become the father of a great nation.

God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac on Mount Moriah. Just before Abraham kills his son, an angel beckons him to stop, promising him a strong legacy because of his willingness to listen to God. A ram is sacrificed in Isaac’s place.

Theme #1: Be Our Guest!

The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. (Genesis 18:1)

Abraham’s display of hospitality is said to have taken place while he is still recovering from his circumcision, making his behavior all the more remarkable.

The Torah … states that Abraham “was sitting at the door of the tent.” (Genesis 18:1) This might seem unnecessary; what difference does it make whether he was sitting by the door or in his living room? And why does the Torah need to tell us what time it was? … The wording of this verse teaches how great it is to fulfill God’s commandments. It purifies a person, refines him and makes him a new man. Because Abraham circumcised himself in his old age, he was very precious in God’s eyes. Until this time, when God had spoken to him, Abraham fell on his face on the ground. He was unable to stand in the presence of the Divine. Also, one condition of prophecy is that the recipient be in a segregated place, so his mind will be at ease to receive the revelation. He must be in a state of joy and tranquility, with his mind free of all other thoughts. Only then is one fit for prophecy. When a person is depressed, the Divine Presence cannot rest on him. Abraham, however, had reached such a high level that he could receive prophecy without these conditions. (Me’Am Lo’ez)

Why did God make that day very hot? Rabbi Hama son of Hanina explained: It was the third day after Abraham’s circumcision, and the Holy One came to ask how Abraham was; so God drew the sun out of its sheath [to make the day so hot], that the righteous Abraham would not be troubled by attending to wayfarers. [Since no one came because of the heat], Abraham sent out [his servant] Eliezer [to look around]. He went out but found no wayfarers. So, in accord with the proverb “Never trust a slave,” Abraham said, “I do not believe you,” and he himself went out. “And he lifted up his eyes, and looked, and lo, three men stood by him (Genesis 18:2). What kind of people were these three [who were able to stir abroad on such a hot day]? They were the angels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel. Michael came to announce to Sarah [that she was to bear a child]; Raphael, to heal Abraham; and Gabriel, to overturn Sodom. (BT Bava Metzia 86b)

Our sages have taught in Yoma 28b, “Abraham, our father, kept the whole Torah.” But this only raises the obvious question of how he could know all the commandments? The Torah had not yet been given! One explanation could be however that, as is known, there are 248 bones in the human body, which correspond to the 248 positive commandments, and 365 sinews, which correspond to the 365 negative commandments. And the limbs of a righteous one feel a physical yearning inside them to fulfill commandments. Indeed, in each limb resides the root of a different commandment. And conversely, the limbs recoil from doing evil. … Therefore, Abraham must have felt his feet wanting to go and welcome the wayfarers, even though he was, as it were, standing on them. From this he must have learned that showing hospitality to wayfarers is greater than receiving the Presence of God. (Rabbi Meir of Peremyshlyany)

Questions for Discussion:

The Me’Am Lo’ez claims Abraham’s location elevates him to an even higher status in God’s eyes, since he is able to understand prophecy under conditions that are not ideal. Many of the world’s most beloved stories involve a hero rising to the occasion when faced with adversity. Is Abraham heroic? Should heroism be defined mainly by the situation, or is any positive behavior, regardless of difficulty, worthy of our admiration?

The Talmud believes that the circumstances of the angels’ arrival are set up by God so that Abraham and family can receive the blessings of progeny and healing. If so, this episode seems b’shert (meant to be). The term b’shert often is used to describe one’s “soul-mate.” Have you ever experienced something, or met someone, and felt like it was b’shert?

Rabbi Meir of Peremyshlyany claims that showing hospitality is more important than experiencing God’s presence. Does showing kindness brings us closer to God? If so, how?

Theme #2: Laughter and Anguish

And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment - with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12)

Abraham and Sarah represent the dialectics of laughter. When she laughs in response to that which is hidden, yet to be uncovered, the text has her laugh “inwardly” (Genesis 18:12). Rashi comments: “She looked into her innards and thought, ‘Is it possible that these inner organs should carry a child, or that these shriveled breasts should flow milk?’” She is constrained in her bowels, in a brute and arid factuality. She laughs the hysterical laughter of tension: “Efshar (Can it be? How can I find a place for possibility in an inner space that is totally defined? How can I see these reduced particulars as charged, as involved in the uncertain throbbing of life?” (Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire)

How ironic was the laughter which Midat HaDin [the attribute of justice] laughed over the inhabitants of Sodom … (Tanhuma, Aharei Mot, 1)

Sarah was not barren. Although she had not given birth to a child, she had given birth to souls, as it is said, “And the souls they had made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5). (Rashi on Genesis 12:5)

Questions for Discussion:

Zornberg seems to suggest (based on Rashi’s commentary) that Sarah’s astonishment at the suggestion that she become pregnant is based on the difficulty of allowing herself to consider a thought she had once eliminated. Are there times when the seemingly impossible suddenly became possible? Did it take some time to adjust to the new possibility? What was the initial reaction to news? Laughter, like Sarah’s, or something different?

The Tanhuma notes the stark contrast between Sarah’s laughter with the horrors of abuse and destruction in Sodom and Amorah. What does this juxtaposition teach us? When is it appropriate, if at all, to laugh when others are suffering? Is it important to laugh whenever we can in order to stay motivated to embrace life, even when others are not as fortunate as we are?

Rashi’s comment that Sarah “had given birth to souls” refers to the numerous people that she and her husband brought with them when they left Haran and initially settled in Canaan. Presumably, they motivated them to follow the belief in one God. Although Sarah had not yet given birth, Rashi says that she had been the “mother” of a new nation. In what ways can someone who does not have children make an impact on a younger generation?

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