Sedra Shorts

Ideas and commentaries on the weekly Torah readings.

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Location: Bet Shemesh, Israel

I taught Tanach in Immanuel College, London and in Hartman, Jerusalem. I was also an ATID fellow for 2 years. At present, I work for the Lookstein Center for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, in Bar-Ilan University, Israel. The purpose of this blog is to provide "sedra-shorts", short interesting ideas on the weekly Torah reading. Please feel free to use them and to send me your comments.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Parshat VaYera

There are for Sedra Shorts on Parshat Vayera. Scroll down for each Dvar Torah

  • The Fate of Mrs. Lot
  • She's my Sister – Again!!
  • Yishmael the Impersonator
  • Avimelch's Pact with Avraham

The Fate of Mrs. Lot

You can't say she wasn't warned: "Flee for your life, do not look behind you, and do not stand in the entire plain. Flee to the mountain, lest you perish" (Bereshit 19:17). Essentially, Sedom was going to be destroyed. "Brimstone and fire" was going to rain down onto it turning into "soil devastated by sulfur and salt" (Devarim 29:22). The local bitumen pits would ignite and everything nearby would be destroyed. Therefore, the angel advised them to flee to the mountains, the high lands. There they would be safe.

Lot's wife fled but "she looked behind him, and she became a pillar of salt" (Bereshit 19:26). The angel warned her not turn around, she did and so faced instantaneous retribution. Or did she?

The Hizkuni would give low marks for this translation. He offers an alternative interpretation. The words" "
ותהי ניצב מלח" do not refer to Mrs. Lot, but to the site that she saw. "It (i.e. the city) was being turning into a block of salt."

This explanation is strange because:

  • The angel warned her not turn round and she did – surely she deserves punishment.
  • It implies that she survived the destruction, but she does not appear again in the story.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue that she survived, for Lot's daughters end up seducing their father. It is unlikely that they would have been able to do that had she been alive..

Nevertheless, is the legend that she was instantaneously turned into a pillar of salt correct? Well, it appears that none of the medieval exegetes actually say that.

The Rashbam explains that the reason the angel told them not to look back was because it would slow them down. You recall that Lot kept on delaying: "He tarried, so the men took hold of his hand and his wife's hand, and the hand of his two daughters, out of the Lord's pity for him, and they took him out and placed him outside the city" (ibid 16).

The angels had to physically remove Lot from the city as he wasn't leaving. Even after that, he kept on delaying despite the fact that the angels were urging him to leave.

Lot wasted so much time, that by the time he fled, he no longer had a second despair. Any further delay, if they slowed down even an instant, they would be swept up and covered by the fire and brimstone and then by salt, just like everyone else.

Therefore, when
Lot's wife, who was already some distance behindLot, turned around, she gazed and witnessed the destruction that was taking place. After a few minutes of gazing, she decided to continue her climb, but by then it was too late. The exploding bitumen pits and the rising sulfur eventually caught up with her. Perhaps earth tremors even he caused her to stumble and fall.

Her final fate therefore, was to become a pile of salt, just like everyone else in Sedom. However, it wasn't instantaneous – God rarely works like that.

She's my Sister – Again!!

For the second time, Avraham describes Sarah as his sister and for the second time, a foreign ruler, this time Avimelech, King of Gerar, takes Sarah to his harem (Bereshit 20:2).

Avraham seems to be compromising Sarah in order protect himself. First time round this action was an uncomfortable read for us, the fact that it occured again is additionally puzzling. There's obviously more going on than meets the eye.

To help us get better insight into the events, we should note that Avraham deliberately chose to describe the relationship between himself and Sarah as that of brother and sister. This description is not coincidental.

In the ancient world, when a girl's father was absent, the brother becomes responsible for finding a suitor for her (NB: it is striking how Lavan takes over Rivka's matrimonial negotiations from his father, Betuel – ibid 24:50-55).

By describing her as his sister, rather than compromising her, Avraham automatically protects Sarah from anyone who desired her. Had Avraham admitted that he was her husband, he might have been killed and Sarah would have been taken. However, as her brother, there was another course of action for potential mates to take. They could legally approach Avraham and negotiate over her. Avraham could then have entered into endless and protacted negotiations, giving them time to plan their escape. At the same time, Avraham has a valid excuse for keeping Sarah out of sight.

Seen in this light, this was a good tactic designed in order to equally protect Sarah and Avraham.

Unfortunately, Avraham's plan became unstuck, when the totally unexpected happened. Pharaoh and Avimelech, monarchs who Avraham had no reason to suspect he would ever meet, wanted Sarah. With them there could be no drawn out negotiations. They lay down their price leaving Avraham with no choice but to accept it without delay.

Note, however, that this tactic actually succeeded for Yitzchak. He also claimed that Rivka was his sister. While Avimelech claims that someone might have taken her, no one actually did and Rivka remained under Yitzchak's protection (ibid 26:10).

Therefore, rather than putting Sarah into a compromising position, Avraham's was actually trying to protect her from unwanted advances. Unfortunately, his plan failed.

Yishmael the Impersonator

We have seen previously how Hagar attempted to usurp Sarah and become Avraham’s wife, in an attempt for God to fulfill His promise to Avraham through her and her progeny. The attempt failed when Avraham told Sarah: “Here is your handmaid in your hand; do to her that which is proper in your eyes” (Bereshit 16:6). Hagar tried to stake her freedom by fleeing, but an angel told her to return to he mistress, to accept that she was only a servant.

Hagar accepted her fate and returned to Sarah, but nevertheless, Yishmael’s fate was not yet determined. Indeed, Avraham begs God: “If only Ishmael will live before You” (ibid 17:18). God accedes to this reques: “regarding Ishmael, I have heard you; behold I have blessed him” (ibid 20). Nevertheless, Avraham’s special destiny was only with the progeny of Sarah: “My covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah will bear to you at this time next year” (ibid 20).

It seems that Yishmael did not accept his fate. In this week’s parsha we see that Sarah saw a threat: “Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, metsachek” (ibid 21:9).

Rashi brings three alternative explanations to Yishmel’s behavior, all based on other appearances of the word: “metsachek”. Yishmael committed either murder, adultery and murder or all three (See Rashi on ibid).

This explanation is difficult to understand. Could Yishmael be really doing any of theses activities in front of Yitschak and it only bother Sarah?

A friend of mine, Yisrael Sapperstein, showed me that the Torah deliberately chooses the root: “Tshk” in explaining Yishmael’s offensive behavior. This root makes up Yitschak’s name. Yishmael was “metschek”, i.e. he was attempting to be Yitschak. He was claiming the inheritance for himself appointing himself the true Yitschak.

Under these circumstances we can understand Sarah’s fear that her son might be usurped. While Avraham, and possibly us as well, might find it hard to understand Sarah’s instruction to: “Drive out this handmaid and her son”, we can now understand her fear: “for the son of this handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac” (ibid 10).

We can also now understand God’s agreement with Sarah: “whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice, for in Isaac will be called your seed” (ibid 12).

Yishmael was not only claiming the inheritance for himself, he saying that he was the true Yitschak. He had to be shown that his impersonation was unsuccessful that he remained outside of Avraham destiny.

While Yishmael got the message, his descendants are yet to get it.
It was Yitschak not Yshmael who was bound up on Mount Moriah and it is only Yitschak who has inherited the blessings of Avraham.

Avimelch's Pact with Avraham

We have another strange episode in this week's parsha.

Avraham is an old man of one hundred years old. He is landless and wandering all over Canaan. Suddenly, out of the blue, Avimelech, king of Pelishtim comes to him with his general Phichol, and says: "God is with you in all that you do. Now, swear to me here by God, that you will not lie to me or to my son or to my grandson; according to the kindness that I have done with you, you shall do with me, and with the land wherein you have sojourned" (Bereshit 21:22-23).

Avimelech then proceeds to make a non-aggression pact with Avraham.

Why does Avimelech, a king with an army, want a non-aggression pact with Avraham, a nomad? What is he afraid of?

We could answer by saying that Avimlech recognizes Avraham's greatness especially the fact that God is with him in all that he does, and therefore, its logical for him to want to be in his good books.

However, if that is the case, then we must ask, why now? Avimelech already knew this. In fact, Avimelech and Avraham had already met some time earlier when Avimelech had taken Sarah his wife. Then God appeared to Avimelech in a dream saying that Avraham: "is a prophet" (ibid 20:7) and warning him not to hurt him.

Surely that would have been a more opportune moment for Avimelech to seek a pact with Avraham.

The answer lies in the timing. The episode begins with the words: "Now it came to pass at that time" (ibid 21:22). Something important had just happened. Avraham had just had son; he now had an heir. So what?

For many years, this old man Avraham had been travelling the length and breadth of Canaan preaching monotheism and that one day he would inherit this land.

Most people would not have taken him seriously; for he had no son. However, now he had that son. Suddenly Avraham is a threat to Avimelech. Avimelech knows first hand that God is with Avraham, but now that Avraham has finally had a son, he fears that Avraham's prophecy will come true. This means that his kingdom is not safe. Avraham's descendants will take it away from his. Therefore, Avimelech, comes with his top general and seeks a multi generational non-aggression pact.

With this pact Avraham now has now outside confirmation that his whole life's mission will succeed, and he uses it to his advantage.

First "he planted an eishel tree", signifying his ownership of the land, as well as planting something for his future descendants to enjoy. Then he "dwelt in the land of the Philistines for many days" and "called there in the name of the Lord, the everlasting God", (ibid 21:33-34) i.e. he spends the rest of his life travelling the land of the Pelishtim and preaching about God. But now he is able to use the pact with Avimelech, the Philistine king, as proof that even he now believes in God – shouldn't they?


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