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Parshat Vayera

And God appeared to him at the Oaks Mamre, and he was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day (Gen.18:1)


And He appeared to him - to visit the sick (Baba Metsia 96) Rabbi Hama bar Hanina said: This was on the third day after his circumcision, and the Holy One came and inquired after his health.

(Rashi ad loc.)


Foreigners malign Judaism and those who carry it on and the heritage of Abraham and his heirs: as if those circumcised men are arrogant in their hearts and regard themselves as unique to their God, as if the sign of the covenant, that separates them from the nations, removed any idea of cosmopolitanism from their hearts, and any feeling of brotherhood with humanity; and the God of heaven and earth, and the God of the soul of every living thing were reduced for them to the God of their tribe, to the God of their piece of earth.

But here sits the first circumcised Jew! And where is he sitting? At the Oaks Mamre! He is still with Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre - who were not "people of his covenant," but "allies of Abraham" (14:13); because the allies included Abraham in their covenant; and "even though" he was circumcised, his relation to people beyond his circle did not change. For thus our Sages have instructed us: this was Abraham's sole concern, and this is what brought him to the door of his tent in the heat of the day: "Before I was circumcised, passersby came to me; should you say that since I have been circumcised, they won't come to me? (Breshit Raba 48,9). And our Sages taught us this so that we would learn from Abraham's example, that "hospitality is as great as greeting the face of the Divine Presence" (Shabbat 127a). These were uncircumcised men, idol worshipers.

(Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, ad loc.).



Abraham the Obedient Protestor

Moshe Meir

Parashat Vayera presents us with a Zen koan: two contradictory stories are juxtaposed. In the first one, Abraham hears what God is going to do in Sodom, about the destruction he plans to wreak upon it, and he protests on the basis of ethics, confronting God and speaking bluntly with Him, culminating in: "Will the Judge of the whole earth not do justice?" And in the second story, that of the Binding of Isaac, Abraham accepts the command, which is no less problematic morally than the destruction of Sodom, and perhaps even more so. Regarding Sodom, Abraham cried out: "Far be it from You to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, and that the fate of the righteous should be like that of the wicked." In the case of the Binding of Isaac, no one is wicked. There is only the righteous, an innocent child whose killing is unjustified. Nevertheless, Abraham, who is capable of protesting, says yes, reaches out to kill the boy, and only an angel prevents him from doing so.

Some thinkers, such as David Hartman, regard the story of Sodom as fundamental and find ways of placing the Binding of Isaac in parentheses. Other thinkers, such as Yeshayahu Leibovitz, regard the story of the Binding of Isaac as fundamental, and place the story of Sodom in parentheses. The reading we propose here regards the story of Sodom as fundamental and suggests a different meaning for the story of the Binding of Isaac. It is important to note at the outset that no reading can cancel the Zen koan, the contradiction between the two stories that forces every reader to confront both contradictory sides.

So it is written: "And it happened after these things that God tested Abraham and said to him, 'Abraham,' and he said, 'here I am.' And he said, 'Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and present him as a sacrifice, on one of the mountains that I will show you.'"

What was the test? On the face of it, the test was whether Abraham would succeed in overcoming his natural emotions and obey God's command. However, please note that this is only one possible interpretation, and it is not stated explicitly in the source. Perhaps the test is the opposite? Perhaps God is testing Abraham to see whether he will have the moral strength to say: "No!" This may sound strange, but let's read the Parasha in the light of these two possibilities.

Abraham takes his son, walks to the mountain with him, binds him, until "and Abraham stretched out his arm and took the knife to slaughter his son." According to the first reading, Abraham passes the test. He managed to restrain his mercy and obey the order. And according to the second reading? Abraham failed. Even though as a witness, in the story of Sodom, he managed to confront God, when the order was directed at him, he lost his moral fiber and said yes and did what he was told.

The continuation of the story would appear to decide in favor of the first reading, showing that in God's eyes Abraham passed the test: "And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, 'Abraham, Abraham': and he said, 'Here am I.' And he said, 'Do not lay your hand upon the lad, neither do any thing unto him: for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son from me.'" And if that is not enough, after the story of the ram, we read: "And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, and he said "By myself have I sworn, says the Lord, for because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son: That in blessing I will bless you, and in multiplying I will multiply your seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and your seed shall possess the gate of his enemies."

Note, however, that whereas God gave the original command and He made the test, here God is not the speaker, but an angel, and this offers an opening for two possible readings. One possibility is that the angel represents God. If the angel says that Abraham passed the test, that is what God also thinks. This reading must handle the difficulty of why it is the angel who stops Abraham and speaks to him, and not God, as in the beginning of the story?

The second reading maintains that there is no reason why the angel and God must agree. The Bible created a gap and left it open. We know what the angel said, but not what God thinks. Perhaps God has a different opinion? Perhaps He does not speak because He thinks that Abraham failed. Since the Bible presents this possibility, the reader must take a stand here: the Abraham of the Sodom story passed the test, but the Abraham of the Binding of Isaac failed. The test does not alienate the reader from Abraham, because the failure is human. It is extremely difficult to insist on our ethical opinion in the face of authority. The Abraham of Sodom creates a source of inspiration for our moral compass, and hope that even in the face of tests like that of the Binding of Isaac, his sons will succeed and follow in his path and stand firm without stumbling.

Moshe Meir is an educator, a leader of groups in a Beit Midrash. He has a doctorate in Jewish Thought, and his book, "Two Together," a combination of religious and secular philosophy, is about to be published.



There is no "preventative" punishment

"Where he is" - He is judged according to what he does now, and not according to what he will do in the future. The ministering angels accused and said: "Master of the Universe, for one whose seed is destined to kill your children with thirst you raise a well?!" He replied: What is he now… a good person or a wicked one?"

They replied: "A good person."

He said to them: "According to his current actions do I judge him," and this is [the meaning of] "where he is."

(Rashi, Bereishit, 21:17)


 "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, do not do anything to him! - The Akeida test as a process of understanding God's will

"Do not stretch out your hand" - to slaughter. Avraham said to God: "If so, you brought me here for nothing. Let me wound him and draw a bit of blood."

He said to him. "Do not do anything to him" - do not wound him."

"For now do I know" –Said Rabbi Abba: Said Avraham to Him, I set my case before you: Yesterday you told me "For it is through Yizhak that seed will be called by your name", and later you said "Take your son… and offer him up". Now you tell me, "Do not stretch out your hand against the lad!?"

Said The Holy One, Blessed Be He, to him: I shall not abrogate my covenant, and I shall not deviate from my word; when I said to you "Take" I did not deviate from my word. I did not tell you "slaughter him" but rather "offer him up"- raise him up, and lower him.

(Rashi, Bereishit 22:12)


Expulsion Has Its Price

"Drive out this slave woman and her son" - ["Drive out" appears] thrice in the Bible: "Drive out this slave woman", "Drive out the scoffer" (Proverbs 22:10), "When he sends you free, it is finished - he will drive, yes, drive you out from here" (Shemot 11:1) - Drive out this slave woman and her son, and then you will have driven out the scoffer, and because Sara drove Hagar out of her home, she was punished, and her descendents were enslaved and had to be driven out of Egypt.

(Baal Haturim, Bereishit 21:10)

Ishamel, the maidservant's son, remains Abraham's son

"The matter distressed him…  for it concerned a son of his" - Even though he was the son of the maidservant, it was his son and he loved him, for he was his firstborn, and he had compassion for him, as a father has compassion for a son, and he walked on the right path, for he grew up with him and he taught him the way of God, for even others he would teach and guide in the right path, all the more so his own son. It was wrong in his eyes to send him away from his home; he did not rebuke his wife for the sake of peace in the family, as we wrote with regard to Hagar (Bereishit 16:6), but he was distressed over the matter, and he suffered from his wife's quarrel until he was told [by God to follow Sara's words].

 (Radak, Bereishit 21:11)



What Is Mine Is Mine, and What Is Yours Is Yours, This Is a Characteristic of Sodom."

The people of Sodom rebelled against the Omnipresent because of all the good showered upon them, as is written (Job 28): "Earth, out of which food grows... Its rocks are a source of sapphires... No bird of prey knows the path to it..." The people of Sodom said: Inasmuch as food comes out of our earth, and silver and gold comes from our earth, and precious stones and pearls come out of our lands, we have no need for people to join us - they will lessen our fortunes. Let us stand, and deny their presence among us. Said The Holy One, Blessed Be He: When I am good to you, you forbid others from joining you. I will cause you to disappear from the earth. What is the scriptural source for this? "He carves out channels through rock, his eyes behold every precious thing" (Ibid.) and "Robbers lie untroubled in their tents..." and "As I live - declares the Lord God - your sister Sodom and her daughters did not do what you and your daughters did...Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! she and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and the needy (Ezekiel 16).

 (Tosefta Sotah 3:3)


The Covenant is Bi-Directional

We must not forget that the covenant is bi-directional, and that its observance depends on the fidelity of each of the sides to the obligations or promises regarding it. We know that one side remembers the covenant, but as for us - the sons of Abraham, the other side - observance of the covenant is incumbent upon us, and we are liable to violate it, even though the fidelity of Him, who remembers the covenant, cannot be shaken. Here is a very important lesson for those who constantly speak about "the rights of the ancestors" that exist for us, etc. They ignore the discussion of the greatest of the Amoraim and the authors of Midrash and Aggada, and, centuries after them, Rabbenu Tam and Maimonides, about how long the rights of ancestors are in force? Most of them reach the conclusion that the rights have run out, and that we have only the covenant, from which not rights but duties are derived: to observe the covenant. And they were preceded by the Tannaim, who stated: "three things were given conditionally: the Land of Israel, the Temple, and the Kingdom of the House of David." Who fulfills or will fulfill the conditions?

(From "Comments on the Portions of the Week by Yeshayahu Leibovitz, pp. 18-19)


And you shall walk in his ways - He is..., so you should be

Let Me go down and I shall see - From this verse it seems as if He did not yet know the extent of the wickedness of the people of Sodom, since it says that He will go down to see if they have acted on their intentions yet or not. It is forbidden to think this, for the blessed Lord probes the heart and searches the mind [literally: "kidneys"] and nothing great or small is hidden from Him...

Rather, the truth of the matter is this: The blessed Lord undoubtedly knew that the people of Sodom were greatly wicked and sinful to the Lord, and that no measures intended to return them to the good would be of any help or usefulness. However, despite all of that, He saw with His wisdom that He should give them another chance before destroying them, for several reasons:

A) In order that Abraham be aroused to pray for them when he hears that their fate is not sealed.

B) In order that all the peoples of the earth know that God does not desire the death of the wicked man, but rather that he return from his ways, and so He offered an opportunity of repentance for those who might be interested.

C) In order to teach judges not to find defendants guilty before investigating the matter, as the Tanhuma says regarding the verse, And the Lord went down to see the town.

D) In order that Lot understand how he had sinned by associating with corrupt people. This test will make him recognize their evil, and as is implied by the other reasons.

The test consisted of sending the two angels to Sodom, disguised as guests to see whether they would be greeted with joy or whether they would be treated cruelly and [the people of Sodom would] try to do them great harm. Their fate would be sealed in accordance with their deeds. That is why God said to Abraham that despite His knowing the magnitude of Sodom's outcry and sins, He still wanted to test them again... I will go down and see whether or not they persist with their evil deeds and continue to treat those guests wickedly, inflicting great abominations, as in their outcry that came to Me. If I see that everyone is dross, altogether foul (Psalms 53:4), I will completely destroy them, and if not, I will know what to do with them and perhaps have mercy upon them.

(Rabbi Y"S Reggio on Bereishit 18:21)


Then the elder said to the younger: "Our father is old and there is not a man on earth to consort with us in the way of all the world."

(Bereishit 19:31)


She who began the harlotry would end with harlotry - Their mother began the harlotry, [as it is written] Then the elder said to the younger: "Let us serve our father drink...". The next day came and the elder sister told the younger... - She taught her harlotry. That is why God took pity on the younger and did not make her known [as someone who slept with her father], but only [wrote] she lay with him, while regarding the elder it is written, she lay with her father. That one began the harlotry, and her daughters continued after her, for it is said, Then the people began to whore after the daughters of Moav.

(Tanhuma Balak 26)


It could be that Lot's daughters were naïve and unthinking, both because of their youth and because they had been born in Sodom and never left it. The people of Sodom were not hospitable to visitors; they had nothing to do with anyone else, leaving Lot's daughters ignorant of geography and of the existence of other nations under heaven. When they saw the great destruction of Sodom and its satellite towns, and that they had to flee Tzoar as well, they believed that the entire world had been destroyed in a flood of fire. That is why they thought their father had hidden in a cave - because no city of refuge survived. And so, they did what they did out of good intentions, in order to preserve life on earth. The Sages praised their deed, and said:

"A person should always hasten to perform a commandment. In reward for having preceded her younger sister by one night, the elder merited [having her descendant] become king over Israel four generations before her [sister's descendent became king over Israel]" (Nazir 23b-24a).

(Reggio ad loc)


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