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This work contains two items:
* D’var Torah on the Parasha
He (G-d) said, “Please take your son, your only one, whom you love – Isaac. Go to the land of Moriah, and bring him up as an offering on one of the mountains which I will specify for you” (22:2).
This passage introduces the famous story of the Akeida – the Binding of Isaac. Whereas other faiths preach the doctrine of Original Sin, the Torah contains the fundamental principle of z’chut avot – the merits of the Fathers: the concept of the ‘Original Blessing’. In consequence of Abraham’s conduct of the Akeida, the narrative concludes: I shall surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring like the stars of the heavens and the sand on the sea shore; your offspring shall inherit the gates of its enemy. And all the nations of the earth shall bless yourselves by your descendents, because you obeyed My voice (22:16-17).
Why did G-d choose this way – of all ways – to test Abraham? Also, why did Abraham not question G-d? Abraham did question G-d’s judgment on Sodom: Will you punish the righteous with the wicked? …It would be sacrilege to you! Shall the Judge of the earth not do justice? (18:24-5). The kal va-homer (a fortiori) which follows is obvious!
In answering these questions, there are several fundamental principles, which, when put together, form an approach towards a deeper understanding of the issues involved behind the narrative.
Firstly, the experience of the Akeida was not Abraham’s first trial – according to both Rashi and the Rambam, it was his tenth. He came to Akeida with the background of the previous nine trials. He did not merely hear voices and act on them: as the narrative relates, he conversed with G-d on many occasions, and he knew the sound of His Voice.
Secondly, the trial was given to Abraham because of who he was – Abraham! Abraham’s special strength was chesed – kindness (Micah 7:20), and concern for the welfare of others, even when they followed selfish, immoral, and corrupt lifestyles. The Akeida contained all the elements of the most extreme cruelty and the absolute negation of Abraham’s life’s work: murder in cold blood, and following the current idol worship practices of sacrificing one’s nearest and dearest (Deut. 12:31). However he believed that he was first and foremost a servant of G-d, and by the time he reached this stage of his life (unlike before the destruction of Sodom) he understood that his own knowledge of G-d was severely limited.
In this context, we may contrast Abraham to Job. Job lived an exemplary life, yet in the face of what would appear to the human mind to be gross injustice, he complained to the Almighty about his suffering. G-d did not condemn Job for protesting, but He answered him:
Who is this who darkens My counsel without knowledge?…
Where were you when I founded the earth?…
Have you walked to the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have you seen the gates of the shadow of death?…
Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up (G-d’s) dominion over the earth? (Job 38)
In other words G-d told Job that his way of looking at his own suffering was a product of his being mortal. Job, said G-d, had no grasp of the Eternal G-d that designed and conducted the universe, and of where he himself fitted in with the Divine Plan.
This was something G-d had to explain to Job. But by the time Abraham had reached advanced age and experience, he was spiritually more advanced than Job. He understood, as Isaiah puts it, that as the heavens are above the earth, so My ways are above your ways, and my thoughts are above your thoughts (Isaiah 55:9). Abraham accepted the infinite nature of the Almighty, and he understood that as a mere mortal he would never grasp where he fitted in within His overall plan. But Abraham did know something else – that the command came from G-d and no other source, and that he had the Hand of G-d on him at all times. Thus he was submitting ‘his program’ to his ‘Creator’s program’.
This point helps us to understand the various commentators who translate nisa et avraham – ‘G-d spiritually raised Abraham’, rather than ‘tested Abraham’. According to the Ramban, G-d knows that His righteous will carry out his commandments, and He tests them to exercise the spiritual power that was until then only latent. The S’forno emphasizes that carrying out a deed from potential to actual practice is in itself a stage in man’s elevation. According to the explanation above, the Akeida was putting into action something that Abraham had only by then developed in his faith. That was that his own intelligence and understanding were limited, and that that Man had to cooperate with G-d’s Eternal Plan with the knowledge that even where I walk in death’s dark valley, I will not fear evil because You are with me… (Psalms, 23:4).
PARASHAT VAYEIRA – FOR THE STUDENT AND FOR AROUND THE TABLE
BASIC QUESTIONS ON PARASHAT VAYEIRA…
Who said to whom, and what for reason?
1. Do just as you have said.
2. Is anything too hard for G-d?
3. Would the Judge of all the Earth be unjust?
4. We will treat you worse than them!
5. Flee for your life!
6. Therefore I did not let you touch her.
7. Throw out this slave-woman and her son!
8. G-d hears the cry of the young man as he is now.
9. I heard nothing about it until today.
10. For now I know that you are a G-d-fearing person.
…AND ON THE HAFTARA
11. I have nothing at home except a small jar of oil.
12. I live amongst my people.
13. She does not have a child and her husband is an old man.
14. Do not bring disappointment…
15. Pick up your son!
1. The angels to Abraham – after he offered them hospitality (18:5).
2. G-d to Abraham – on hearing Sara’s laughter on being told by an angel that she would give birth despite her advanced age (18:14).
3. Abraham to G-d – his appeal to save the people of Sodom on hearing G-d’s intentions to destroy them (18:25).
4. The people of Sodom to Lot – on discovering that Lot had offered hospitality to two people who appeared to be wayfarers (19:9)
5. One of the angels to Lot - on forcibly ejecting Lot and his immediate family from Sodom before its destruction (19:17).
6. G-d through a dream to Abimelech, King of Gerar – saying that it was only through His forcible intervention that he, Abimelech, did not manage to touch Sarah (20:6)
7. Sarah to Abraham, on finding her stepson Ishmael behaving incorrectly (21:10).
8. An angel of G-d to Hagar when, in the desert, the water supply provided by Abraham for herself and her son ran out (21:17).
9. Abimelech to Abraham, following Abraham’s complaint that Abimelech’s servants had stolen sources of water belonging to Abraham (21:26).
10. G-d to Abraham, following Abraham’s demonstrating his readiness to fulfill His will at even the most extreme cost – namely to obey His command to offer Isaac a burnt offering (22:12).
11. One of the wives of the prophets to the Prophet Elisha, after he asked her if she had anything at all in her house (Kings II 4:2).
12. The woman of Shunem’s reply to Elisha’s request to reward her kindness in any way – including using the services of important people outside the district (4:13).
13. Gehazi, Elisha’s assistant, to Elisha – in reply to Elisha’s wishing to know how to reward the hospitality of the woman of Shunem (4:14).
14. The woman of Shunem’s immediate reaction to Elisha, on his announcing that she would give birth to a son in one year’s time (4:16).
15. Elisha to the woman of Shumen, on miraculously bringing her baby son back to life (4:36).
From where may it be learnt?
1. Do not refuse the hospitality of a person of high caliber.
2. You may sometimes tell a lie to keep the peace.
3. Do not pass judgment before checking out all the facts.
4. Life first, then property afterwards!
5. It can be far more painful to be the last in good company than the first in bad company.
6. A person should not needlessly let his or her own sins be recalled - even if they were committed by accident.
7. G-d takes care of the needs of those who put the similar wants of other people before their own.
8. Women may have great insight – even to a greater degree than men.
9. G-d judges a person according to his present conduct, and not by the evil he may bring about in the future.
10. A person who disturbs his fixed routine to do a mitzva that comes his way, has genuine love for that mitzva.
…AND ON THE HAFTARA
11. A person may only experience the miracle of spectacular business success if he starts by putting something of value into it – however small.
12. A person should not draw unnecessary attention to a miracle that came through him.
1. The angels accepted Abraham’s offer of hospitality (18:5) – teaching that one does not refuse a great person (Rashi to 19:2)
2. Sara’s laughter on overhearing an angel tell Abraham that she would give birth despite her advanced age included the words ‘my husband is old’ (18:12). When the G-d related her reaction to Abraham, He changed that uncomplimentary reference from her husband to herself - ‘I (Sarah) am old.’ (18:13)
3. G-d stated that He Himself would ‘descend and see’ (18:21) if the people of Sodom were as evil as they appeared to be. Even though His Presence is everywhere, He specifically checked the facts, as it were, to set an example to human judges to act likewise. (c.f. similar comment to 11:5 in the narrative of the Tower of Babel)
4. Lot ‘lingered’ - to save his property (Rashi to 19:16). The angels forcibly ejected Lot and his family with the words ‘flee for your life’ – implying that possessions were to stay behind (Rashi to 19:17).
5. Rashi implies this idea by considering Lot’s spiritual sensitivity on being led out of Sodom. Lot did not wish to ‘escape to the mountain’ (19:19) because that was where Abraham resided. And he felt that G-d would not let him live for the following reason. Relative to the people of Sodom, he was a righteous man - worthy of being saved. But compared to Abraham he would appear in His eyes as a sinner – unworthy of being saved.
6. Lot’s daughters induced their father to unwittingly perform incest, in the honest belief that they were the sole survivors of humanity following the destruction of Sodom. However Rashi (to 19:37) records a difference in the conduct between the two daughters. The elder was so shameless that she gave her son a name that recalled his incestuous parentage – ‘Moab’ from ‘mi av’ – ‘from the father’. The younger one, however, gave her son the name ‘Ben-Ami’ – the ‘son of my people’ - he would be the ancestor of the nation of Ammon. In her modestly in concealing Lot’s role, she was rewarded in Moses’ time when G-d commanded the Israelites not to harass the people of Ammon in any way (Deut. 2:19).
7. This is indicated by the juxtaposition of Abraham’s successfully praying for fertility to return to the members of Abimelech’s household (20:17-18), with his own wife, Sarah, miraculously giving birth at an advanced age (Rashi to 21:1).
8. Despite Abraham’s greatest reluctance to expel Ishmael from his household, G-d told him to listen to Sarah who told him to throw him out. Although Abraham is recorded as being a prophet (20:7), his being directed to follow his wife implies that she had a greater degree of prophecy than he did (Rashi to 21:12).
9. The Midrashic tradition quoted by Rashi states the following. When the water supply provided by Abraham for Hagar and her son Ishmael ran out (21:17), the angels pleaded with G-d not to perform a miracle for Ishmael, because in the future his offspring would persecute and murder Israelite people. G-d, however, responded that He would judge Ishmael only according to his present deeds ‘as he is now’ and not according to what would happen in the future.
10. On being told by G-d to offer Isaac as a burnt offering, Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his own donkey. He did not follow his normal practice of delegating this task to one of his servants as love for the Mitzvah gives precedence to the normal procedure (Rashi to 22:3).
11. Elisha’s asking the destitute wife of one of the prophets ‘what do you have in the house?’ (Kings II 4:2) implies that the miracle of the multiplication of anything (in this case the oil) needs at least something of the same to start off. In this case the first item of value came from the woman in need herself – namely her sole possession of the small container of oil. And on that, the text records spectacular ‘business success.’
12. Elisha specified that the miracle of the oil would have to take place behind closed doors… ‘modesty shows respect to the miracle’ (Rashi to 4:4)
1. The opening words of the Parasha – ‘G-d appeared to him’ (Abraham) (18:1), do not appear to contain any details, but go straight on to Abraham’s meeting with the ‘three men’ (18:2). What were the contents of G-d’s revelation to Abraham according to (a) the Rambam and (b) the Ramban?
2. What single verse in the Bible relates Sodom’s pride, wealth, slothfulness, selfishness, and indifference to the suffering of others?
3. Why, according to the (a) Ibn Ezra and (b) Sforno, does G-d test people?
4. What general rule may be used to distinguish Rashi’s and the Rambam’s listing of the Ten Trials of Abraham referred to in their commentaries Avot 5:3.
1. The Rambam understands the opening words as forming an introduction to the entire story. In the Guide to the Perplexed (2:42), he states that the events in the succeeding narrative did not actually happen, but were prophetic visions. Thus the details of the words of the angels and all the events that followed, including the overturning of Sodom and the saving of Lot, are all part of the same vision. The Ramban (to 18:2) criticized the Rambam in the strongest possible words, saying that his interpretation ‘contradicts the text and one is forbidden to hear or believe in it’. The Ramban explains that G-d appeared to Abraham to glorify and exalt him, and to honor him for his dedication in following His path. The succeeding stories are real ones, details listed having actually happened.
2. In conveying the word of G-d condemning the Jews at the time of the Destruction of the First Temple in the severest terms, Ezekiel compares them with the people of Sodom. ‘Behold! This was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, and abundance of bread and an abundance of idleness in it and in its daughters; nor did it strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.’ (Ezekiel 16:49)
3. Ibn Ezra (to 22:1) explains that even though G-d knows what people will do in the future, G-d tests them to increase their Divine reward for having succeeded. Sforno (to the same verse) implies that G-d’s testing people gives them opportunities to become spiritually greater people for having successfully gone through the experience. He goes on to state that carrying out a deed from potential to actual practice is a stage in man’s elevation, that his image should be like G-d’s, who transforms His good from potential to action.
4. Whereas Rashi includes trials known through Midrashic sources (such Abraham’s hiding thirteen years from the murderous Nimrod, and his trial by fire at Ur), the Rambam only includes events clearly recorded in the text.
1. *How may Abraham’s lavish hospitality to the strangers at his tent be reconciled with his throwing his own eldest son out of his own home - with an inadequate supply of bread and water?
2. *The story of the pilegesh be-Giv’ah (Concubine of Gibea - Judges 19-21) has several parallels to the story of Lot’s experiences in Sodom, and its final destruction. Why was the Tribe of Benjamin involved in the pilegesh be-Giv’ah allowed to survive whereas the people of Sodom were not? And why did the opposing Israelites suffer such huge losses? After all they were executing justice on a tribe that had refused to co-operate in removing a huge blot on the moral record of the Israelites.
3. Many people who came to Israel with the express purpose of living in the Holy Land make the following observation: ‘It has never been easy to make a living here – but somehow we always manage to get by. Indeed, when I look over my own income and compare it with the expenditures, I cannot understand how it is that we as a family have kept our heads above water at all.’ What light do the stories related in the Haftara shed on that comment?
*Please note – My own attempts to deal with the issues related in #1 and #2 may be found in the archives for last year on Shema Yisrael – on Parashiot Chayei-Sarah and Vayeira respectively.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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