Say a Little and Do a Lot
ואקחה פת לחם… ואל הבקר רץ אברהם
Let me take a morsel of bread… and Abraham ran to the livestock (Bereishit 18:5-7).
Our sages note a fascinating contrast between the actions of Abraham at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayeira, and the actions of Ephron the Hittite at the beginning of next week’s Torah portion. In our parsha, Abraham was visited by three angels who appeared to him as weary travelers in the desert. Hurrying from his tent to greet them, Abraham begged them to rest awhile under the shade of his tree and to allow him to fetch them some bread with which to refresh themselves. After they agreed, Abraham prepared them a feast, slaughtering three calves so as to present each one of them with a tongue marinated in mustard!
Our sages teach us that righteous people say little but do much; Abraham spoke only about fetching some bread but ended up providing them with a banquet.
This is not true, however, of wicked people, who “say much but do not do even a little.” This may be seen from the actions of Ephron in next week’s Torah portion (Bereishit 23:8-16). When Abraham wished to purchase the Cave of Machpelah (The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron) in which to bury his wife Sarah, Ephron insisted at first on giving it to Abraham as an outright gift. When Abraham made it clear that he would like to purchase the cave, Ephron charged him an exorbitant price.
Two aspects of our sages’ observation are troubling. Firstly, why didn’t they simply note that righteous people do much good, while wicked people do nothing? How does Abraham’s saying little relate to his doing so much, and how does Ephron’s saying much lead to his failure to do even a little?
Secondly, what’s so bad about what Ephron did? He offered the field as a gift, and would have given it to Abraham, had he been willing to accept it. Even afterwards, when Abraham insisted on purchasing the field for money, Ephron could have refused to part with it on any terms. While it’s true that in the sale he gouged him on the price, does that make him a “wicked man”?
Rabbi Yaakov Haber points out that nobody starts out being wicked. No high school student writes in his yearbook that he hopes to make a career out of cheating and defrauding people. Generally, people start out with the best of intentions. They will even boast of all the good they intend to accomplish. They view the world unrealistically, however, because they underestimate the seductive power of evil, and are easily caught in traps which they did not foresee.
Righteous people become righteous because they never underestimate how hard it is to be good. They are afraid to promise anything, because they know that it is a whole lot easier to talk about doing something, than to actually carry it out, and fortify themselves to get the job done, despite the inevitable excuses and glitches which will crop up along the way.
If we view the world as Abraham did, and make ourselves ready for anything, we will be able to overcome all of life’s challenges.
Doing Good at Someone Else’s Expense
וישא עיניו וירא והנה שלשה אנשים נצבים עליו וירא וירץ לקראתם מפתח האהל וישתחו ארצה…יקח־נא מעט־מים… ואקחה פת־לחם וסעדו לבכם
“And he (Abraham) lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing over him, and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground … Let a little water be brought … and I will fetch bread so that you may nourish yourselves.” (Bereishit 18:2-5)
Abraham excelled in the mitzvah of hosting guests. Three days after he had circumcised himself at the age of 99, G-d didn’t want Abraham to burden himself with caring for guests. He brought a heat wave to deter all travelers on that day. Still, the weak Abraham’s greatest concern was that the unusually hot weather would deny him the merit of welcoming guests. Abraham decided to sit at the entrance of his tent in the hopes that he might spy a stray traveler.
When G-d saw Abraham’s suffering over the lack of guests, He sent three angels in the guise of people. Rejoicing at this improbable turn of events, the elderly and weak Abraham ran to personally invite them to his home to serve them. Abraham proceeded to serve them a lavish and abundant feast with one exception: although he was generous with all of the other courses, he instructed that only a small amount of water be brought for them. As caring for guests was Abraham’s raison d’etre and he was so generous with all of the other portions, why wasn’t he as generous when it came to the water?
The following story will help us answer this question. On one of his travels, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883) spent Shabbat in a small village. The locals were excited about the opportunity to host the renowned Rabbi in their community and to learn from his pious ways. When the time came to wash his hands prior to the meal, his hosts were surprised to notice that he used a very small amount of water.
Worried that they had done something wrong or offended the Rabbi in some way, they respectfully asked for an explanation of his behavior. Rabbi Salanter explained that the water in this village was drawn from a distant well. Carrying the water over this long distance was a very difficult task. Although he was normally accustomed to washing his hands with more water, in this case it would be inappropriate to do so at the expense of the water-carrier.
In light of this story, Rabbi Yaakov Neiman in his work Darkei Mussar explains that almost all of the preparations for the meal were performed by Abraham. The actions which he did on behalf of the guests were done with great alacrity and revealed a giving spirit. The water, on the other hand, was the one item which Abraham asked somebody else to bring. As much as he wanted to offer the guests generous portions, he understood, as did Rabbi Salanter, that it would be inappropriate to do so at someone else’s expense.
The commandments are traditionally divided into two categories: those between man and G-d, and those between man and his fellow man. As piety is often associated with the mitzvot in the first group, it is natural for somebody wishing to demonstrate his religious devotion to emphasize this type at the expense of the commandments governing our interpersonal relationships. In reality, our forefather Abraham teaches us that true piety requires recognizing that both classes emanate equally from G-d and must be balanced accordingly.
Every Prayer Counts
וכמו השחר עלה ויאיצו המלאכים בלוט לאמר קום קח את אשתך ואת שתי בנתיך הנמצאת פן תספה בעון העיר
“And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying: ‘Arise, take your wife, and your two daughters that are here; lest you be swept away in the iniquity of the city.’” (Bereishit 19:15)
In this week’s parsha, we learn how G-d informed Abraham that He intended to destroy the ancient city of Sodom and four surrounding cities because of the decadence of their inhabitants. Abraham prayed on their behalf, hoping that G-d would spare the city on account of some righteous people in these cities. G-d acquiesced to Abraham’s request, but, as there wasn’t even a paltry minimum of righteous people, Sodom and its surrounding cities were destroyed. Abraham’s nephew Lot and his two daughters, who all resided in Sodom, were spared of Sodom’s fate and left the area. Concerned about their potential lack of progeny, Lot’s daughters slyly intoxicated him, causing him to father a child for each of them. The nations of Ammon and Moav were the result of their act.
Sodom was notorious for its decadence and lack of hospitality, though little is known about the one redeeming aspect of this city. Commenting on the verse in Tehillim (Psalms, 89:21), “I have found my servant, David,” the Medrash (Bereishit Rabbah 44:1) comments, “Where did I find David? In Sodom.” This enigmatic comment is hard to fathom. Could the righteous King David possibly have been discovered in this nefarious city of sin?
To understand this better, it is worth noting how the Torah describes the fate of Sodom. G-d was prepared to destroy Sodom, but He first offered Abraham a chance to pray on the city’s behalf. Rabbi Yissachar Frand wonders about the efficacy of such a prayer. G-d knew that there were insufficient righteous people in Sodom who would justify the city being saved. What, then, was the purpose of Abraham praying on Sodom’s behalf? Rabbi Frand explains that although the prayers on behalf of Sodom were ineffective as far as Sodom was concerned, nevertheless the prayers helped Abraham himself. Abraham was to become known as the Pillar of Kindness, and his prayers would assist him in perfecting his attribute of kindness.
Referring to himself, King David writes (Psalms 109:4) va’ani tefillah, but I am prayer. The Talmud (Megillah 18a) teaches us that after David, i.e. after the arrival of the Messaiah (Moshiach), prayer will come; we will live in a world of prayer. ‘Prayer’ in this sense refers to a unique bond with G-d. While on the surface we “pray” for our needs, we are ultimately seeking a connection with G-d. Thus, when Moshiach arrives and our troubles disappear, we will retain the essence of prayer, i.e. connecting with G-d. Similarly, although Sodom was destroyed, Abraham achieved a connection with G-d as a result of his prayers. We can now better understand the Medrash that states that David is found in Sodom. King David, a descendant of Lot’s son Moav, was a positive consequence of Abraham’s prayers on behalf of Sodom. It can thus be said that David, the epitome of prayer, was found in Sodom.
This insight into the Medrash underscores the value of our prayers. As a community that has prayed for over 1900 years for Moshiach and for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), it can be disheartening that our prayers have yet to be answered. After all, if the prayers of generations that were spiritually greater than ours were not answered, how can we expect that our prayers will be positively fulfilled? The residual effect of Abraham’s prayer on behalf of Sodom, however, teaches us that no genuine prayer is for naught. As Rabbi Moshe Mitrani, commonly referred to as the Mabit, writes in his classic Beit Elokim, one should never despair from praying for the redemption. The prayers of the Jewish people, he explains, are cumulative. All of our prayers together will result in the arrival of Moshiach. Whether we pray for personal or communal needs, we should always be cognizant of the fact that every prayer has everlasting value.
Merit For Survival
ויהי בשחת אלהים את ערי הככר ויזכר אלהים את אברהם וישלח את־לוט מתוך ההפכה בהפך את הערים אשר ישב בהן לוט
“And it came to pass, when God destroyed the cities of the plain, that G-d remembered Abraham, and He sent Lot out of the midst of the destruction when He overturned the cities in which Lot had dwelt.” (Bereishit 19:29)
In this week’s parsha we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and how Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is saved from the devastation by an angel. Although Lot’s salvation can be most closely linked to his relationship with Abraham, Rashi tells us that he too had a merit that made him worthy of being saved. When Abraham went down to Egypt, he told the customs officer that his wife Sarah was his sister, out of fear that if the Egyptians knew he was the husband of this beautiful woman, they might kill him in order to take his wife as a concubine for the Pharaoh. Lot was there, and he could have told the customs officer the truth, and probably would have been rewarded handsomely. But, he didn’t. In this merit he was saved from the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah.
This seems strange because we see Lot doing deeds that seem to be far more difficult. When two angels came to Sodom, he invited them in and gave them a place to sleep and eat, even though he knew that this would enrage the people of Sodom to the point where they might try to kill him. When they actually came and demanded that he send out the two guests, he went out and defended the guests at the risk of his life. That being the case, why wasn’t Lot saved in merit of these action, which seem to indicate a much higher level of sacrifice, than the fact that he didn’t divulge information that could have caused his uncle to be killed?
The Sages tell us that the reward someone gets is not determined by how great the action seems to be objectively, but by the level of difficulty the action presents to a particular person. One person may find it very easy to keep kosher, but finds it very challenging to get out of bed and go to morning services. Another person may have an easy time attending services, but finds keeping kosher to be grueling. Each person will be rewarded based on the extent to which they overcame that which they personally found to be challenging, not based upon an objective measure of the difficulty of the actions they performed.
Lot grew up in the house of Abraham, and therefore, inviting guests was not something he found difficult. Au contraire, he found it quite rewarding. Kindness came easily to Lot, and, therefore, it would not earn him a “get out of Sodom free” card. His challenge was his attraction to money, which had been his primary reason for moving to Sodom, a place that had great farmland and pastures. For him, to refrain from “ratting” on Abraham, an act which could have made him wealthy, was enormously difficult, and therefore, in the merit of that action he deserved to be saved!
Often we take a specific mitzvah that is very difficult for us, and we negate its value by saying, “Oh, it’s only a small mitzvah!” Aside from the fact that we don’t truly know whether a mitzvah is big or small, the truth is that if that mitzvah is a challenge for us, it might be our biggest mitzvah! G-d isn’t looking for big displays or large actions, G-d is looking for big hearts, and large self-sacrifice.
Fear of G-d
ויאמר אברהם כי אמרתי רק אין יראת אלהים במקום הזה והרגוני על דבר אשתי
“And Abraham said [to Abimelech, the king of Gerar], ‘I said [to myself], there is but no fear of G-d in this place.’” (Bereishit 20:11)
After the destruction of Sodom, Abraham moved to Gerar, in the southern part of the Land of Canaan (Israel). However, unlike his move to Egypt many years earlier, Abraham did not at first suspect that Sarah would be abducted when they got there.
When Abraham moved to Egypt, he was aware of the Egyptian’s lack of morality. He knew that if the Egyptians found out that Sarah was his wife, they would have no qualms about killing him and taking her. Therefore, he took precautions beforehand to refer to Sarah as his sister. (Bereishit 12:10-13)
Gerar, on the other hand, had a reputation as a law-abiding place, so no such precautions were necessary. Upon arrival, however, Abraham had a change of heart and referred to Sarah as his sister. He realized he had reason to fear for his life if the people of Gerar became aware of Sarah’s true identity. In fact, Sarah was taken from him by Abimelech. (Bereishit 20:2)
G-d intervened to stop Abimelech from following through on his designs. Appearing to Abimelech in a dream, God warned him that he and all his servants were about to die, because he had taken a married woman. Abimelech argued that he was innocent, and that Abraham and Sarah themselves had told him she was his sister. Nevertheless, G-d warned Abimelech that he would be in mortal danger unless he returned Sarah.
The next morning, Abimelech summoned Abraham and demanded an explanation for his “uncivilized” behavior. (Bereishit 20:4 -10) Abraham responded by describing the treatment he received as a guest in their country. Instead of asking him about his basic needs, their first question was whether Sarah was his wife or sister. Seeing this, Abraham understood: “…there is but no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (Rashi, Bereishit 20:11)
This episode raises a fundamental question: If Abraham was genuinely concerned that he would be killed so that they could take his wife, why did he portray their failing with the seemingly mild description, “only no fear of G-d” in Gerar? Killing a man to take his wife is a lack of basic morality, not simply a lack of fear of G-d!
Rabbi Meir Leibush, author of the Malbim commentary, explains that Abraham acknowledged that Gerar was, generally speaking, a law-abiding country. There was, however, no fear of heaven there. That fact that the people of Gerar currently did not take married women forcibly and kill their husbands does not necessarily represent an unwavering moral code. Without subservience to G-d, their moral standards could change at any moment. It was “only” their lacking fear of G-d that caused Abraham to hide Sarah’s identity as a way of saving his life.
Rabbi Hutner, late dean of Yeshiva Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, NY, would relate a chilling story that illustrates this point: When Rabbi Hutner was a young Rabbinic student in pre-war Europe, one of his fellow students spoke admiringly about the polite and refined manner with which the German people treated him during a recent visit there. The student recalled that whenever he asked for directions, the Germans would end their statements with a polite “Nisht vaar?” – “Is it not so?”
A disagreement ensued among the students about whether it was proper to learn etiquette from the Germans who had no connection to Divine Law, but merely his own sense of proper behavior.
Fifty years later in America, an elderly gentleman once approached Rabbi Hutner, and reminded him that they had been students together back in Europe. Overjoyed to see an old acquaintance, Rabbi Hutner grabbed the man’s hand to embrace him. He was stunned to find a hook in place of the gentleman’s hand. The old man explained: “I was one of the boys in favor of learning etiquette from the Germans,” he said. “I realize now just how wrong I was. When I was in the concentration camp, a German Nazi sawed off my hand. But as he did so, he said, ever so politely, ‘It hurts, nisht vaar?’”
In our times, the moral code of society is changing with astonishing speed. Even a cursory study of the cultural, academic and moral standards that held sway less than a generation ago will demonstrate how radically different things are today. Those who promote these changes are often convinced that their new opinions are correct, even sacrosanct – only to see them fall by the wayside in just a few years.
Abraham’s message was that society can only function correctly over time when people live according to a Divine, unwavering code of morality. Throughout history, the Jewish people have spread this message to the surrounding society wherever we have gone. It is a message that remains as relevant today as it was 3,000 years ago, and one that we can proudly pass on to our children and grandchildren after us.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
G-d told Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom, which was filled with selfish, wicked people. Abraham proceeded to negotiate with G-d over the city’s possible salvation. He managed to elicit G-d’s assurance that the city would be spared if 50 righteous people could be found. He continued negotiating further until he reached ten people and then stopped without asking for an even smaller number (Bereishit 18:20-33).
- Abraham devoted his life do performing kindness and good deeds. It might seem that he would be glad that the Sodomites, who were living a lifestyle antithetical to his, were finally getting what they deserved. Instead, he prayed for their lives. Why might he have done so?
- If Abraham was meeting with such success negotiating with G-d, why would he have stopped at ten righteous people?
The Torah describes in great detail the extent to which Abraham exerted himself on behalf of three visitors to his tent, whom Abraham quickly realizes are angels.
- Rashi points out that in response to Abraham’s kindness here, G-d allowed the Jewish people to be given water from the rock at the end of their 40 years of wandering in the desert. (Rashi, Bereishit 18:4) In that incident, the Jewish people complained about a lack of water, and G-d commanded Moses to speak to the rock to bring forth water. However, Moses disobeyed G-d’s instructions and struck the rock, and was punished by not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel. (Bamidbar 20:9-13) As there is a significant negative aspect to this incident, why might G-d have considered this a fitting time to reward Abraham for his kindness? In what way might these two events be linked?
- G-d originally did not want to trouble Abraham with guests while he was recovering from his circumcision. When G-d saw that Abraham was distressed over not being able to welcome guests, He sent angels to visit him. (Rashi, Bereishit 18:1) Given that this episode was essentially “orchestrated” by G-d for Abraham’s benefit, why is this event used as the prime example of Abraham’s kindness and the source of future blessings for the Jewish people?
“Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will You stamp out the righteous along with the wicked? What if there would be fifty righteous people would you still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the righteous along with the wicked. It would be sacrilege to You! Shall the Judge of all earth not do justice?’” (Bereishit 18:23-26) Abraham engages here in what might be considered the epitome of “moral audacity” by challenging the Almighty’s judgment regarding the destruction of Sodom. He bargains with G-d, at first arguing that the cities be saved if fifty righteous people could be found within them, then on account of there being just forty-five righteous people, and finally bargaining downward that the cities should be spared if there were forty, or thirty, or twenty, or even as few as ten righteous people. At each point, Abraham’s proposal is accepted. Ultimately, however, the cities failed to meet even the barest minimum of ten righteous people and were eventually destroyed.
- Nachmanides (Ramban) explains that when Abraham asked if ten righteous people would suffice, he was asking whether this would be enough to spare all five cities. As Abraham surely knew there weren’t fifty righteous people in these decadent cities, why did he start with higher numbers instead of asking about ten people right away?
- Why didn’t Abraham similarly plead on behalf of his beloved son Isaac, when (as recorded at the end of the parsha) he was asked to offer him as a sacrifice? (Rabbi Label Lam)
Rashi writes (Bereishit 21:17) that when Ishmael was about to die of thirst in the desert, G-d wished to miraculously create for him a well of water. The Heavenly angels questioned how G-d could do so for somebody whose descendants would one day make Jews die of thirst. Why should Ishmael be punished for the actions of his descendants? (Ayelet HaShachar)
One of the reasons given for the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana is to remember the merit of the binding of Isaac, and it is for this reason that we are accustomed to use the horn of a ram, just as Abraham offered (Bereishit 22:13) a ram on the altar he had built for Isaac. Instead of invoking the memory of the ram offered instead of Isaac, wouldn’t it be more meritorious to remember the knife which Abraham was willing to use to sacrifice his beloved son? (Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch of Vidislov quoted in Chaim Sheyeish Bahem Moadim)
Q: Abraham merited G-d’s love as a result of his dedication to commanding his children and his household to follow in his ways of Divine service (Bereishit 18:19). Given Abraham’s reputation as an educator par excellence, it is curious that the Torah relates precious little of his actual conversations with his son and spiritual heir, Isaac. In fact, the only recorded interactions between them are on the way to the Binding of Isaac, in which the Torah mentions (Bereishit 22:7-8) a total of two lines – a mere eight seemingly trivial words – which Abraham spoke to Isaac, and those were only in response to a discussion initiated by Isaac. If we are to learn from Abraham’s techniques of transmitting our values and priorities to the next generation, shouldn’t we be given more examples?
A: Rabbi Yitzchok Zilberstein answers that in intentionally limiting the recorded words of Abraham to his son, the Torah is teaching us a tremendous lesson regarding the education of our children. Many Americans mistakenly believe that raising children is as simple as constantly instructing and commanding them what they should and shouldn’t do. The fact that the parents themselves may not follow this advice is believed to be irrelevant, as “Do as I say, not as I do” seems to resolve the apparent contradiction.
In reality, of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Our children are much smarter than we give them credit for, and they see right through our double standards, recognizing that our actions reflect our true beliefs, which they in turn absorb. The Torah tells us precious little of Abraham’s words to Isaac to teach us that this wasn’t Abraham’s primary form of conveying his beliefs. Rather, the most effective form of education came through serving as a personal example of all that he valued and wished to transmit to his son. This form of instruction was stronger than any words and couldn’t be explicitly expressed by the Torah. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
The sin which caused G-d to decide to destroy Sodom was their opposition to acts of charity and kindness to the poor (Ezekiel 16:49). As helping the poor isn’t one of the seven mitzvot in which non-Jews are commanded, why were they punished for refusing to do so? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Kovetz Ma’amarim by Rabbi Elchanon Wasserman)
As Abraham was about to slaughter his son Isaac, an angel called out to him from heaven and ordered him to stop (Bereishit 22:11). Why was the original command to take Isaac up as an offering given by G-d (Bereishit 22:2) while the command to cease and desist came from an angel? (Tiferet Torah by Rabbi Shimshon Pinkus)
Q: Abraham was the paragon of piety and righteousness. Without precedent, he had single-handedly discovered G-d as the Creator of the universe, intuited the laws of the Torah, obeyed them even before it was given, and spread the knowledge of G-d among his contemporaries. He had already passed the vast majority of the ten tests to which G-d subjected him with flying colors. Why, then, is it only after passing the test of the binding of Isaac that the angel tells him (Bereishit 22:12), “Now I know that you are a G-d-fearing person?” Hadn’t Abraham demonstrated that by his willingness to risk his own life rather than bow down to Nimrod’s idols?
A: The Vilna Gaon explains that the value of a mitzvah is measured by the degree to which its performance runs counter to one’s natural inclinations, and therefore represents a more difficult test of his devotion to G-d. Abraham had clearly proven his devotion to G-d and had passed numerous trials, but a number of them played into the central attribute of his Divine service, which was chesed (kindness). On the other hand, although the willingness to personally sacrifice one’s own son to G-d is difficult for any father, its challenge was significantly more complex for one whose entire life was devoted to the trait of kindness. As this test required Abraham to act counter to his nature and everything that he stood for, it is considered the trial which uniquely demonstrated Abraham’s devotion to G-d . (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: Rashi writes (Bereishit 21:1) that the section recounting Sarah’s conception of Isaac is juxtaposed to Abraham’s prayers that Abimelech’s wife and maids be able to conceive (Bereishit 20:17-18) to teach that if one prays on behalf of another person when he himself needs that same thing, he will be answered first. It is traditionally understood that this procedure works as a reward for the selflessness demonstrated by somebody who desperately needs something himself, yet he is able to magnanimously overlook his own personal needs in order to pray for another person in need of that very same thing. A man once asked Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein whether this technique will still be effective when a person needs something and knows of another person who needs the same thing and he prays for that person only out of a hope that doing so will cause him to be answered, or must the prayers for the other be genuine and heartfelt in order for this method to work?
A: Rabbi Zilberstein replied by quoting the Maharal’s explanation of this concept. The Maharal writes that G-d is the source of all blessing which come to the world. However, in order for His blessings to descend upon a person, there must be a conduit which connects that person to the Heavenly source of goodness and thereby facilitates the transfer. One such possible channel is prayer. When we pray to G-d , we connect ourselves to Him and allow Him to bestow His bounty upon us. When one prays on behalf of another and his prayers are answered, he becomes the channel which links his friend to the Divine source of blessing.
When a person uses a hose to water his lawn, the hose – which serves as the conduit for the transfer of water – becomes wet even before the grass does. Similarly, one who merits serving as the medium by which G-d bestows His kindness upon another becomes “wet” with the goodness even before it reaches its ultimate target. Therefore, although it may be contrary to conventional wisdom, the power of prayer is so great that one who prays for his friend – even for ulterior motives – will still merit to be answered first! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
The Longest Pesach
“He said ‘I will return to you next year, and Sarah, your wife, will have a son.’ Sarah was listening at the door of the tent, that was behind him.” (Bereishit 18:10)
Next Year – Meaning, at this time next year. This occurred on Passover and on the following Passover, Isaac was born. – Rashi
The birth of the Jewish nation on Passover upon their exodus from Egypt on the 15th of Nissan, 2448, was preceded by an equally significant event exactly four hundred years earlier; the birth of Isaac, the second of the Patriarchs. This impeccable timing was certainly no mere coincidence. The events of Isaac’s birth bore striking similarities to the events of the Exodus. The likelihood of a barren set of aged parents bearing a child was not much greater than the escape of millions of slaves from an extremely powerful country. Just as Isaac was born only after years of devoted service to G-d under the most trying circumstances, the Jewish people were redeemed only after years of loyal adherence to Jewish principles, while cruelly enslaved. Great events in Jewish history are always preceded by the monumental and unlikely accomplishments of individuals, sometimes many generations earlier. Each time the Jewish people were written off as hopeless, they soon arose stronger than ever before, thanks to the few individuals who ignored the gloomy prognostications of the experts. What at first seems like a noble but inadequate effort, soon flourishes beyond anyone’s wildest expectations.
“And Abraham ran to the cattle, and took a tender, choice calf. He gave it to the lad and hurried to prepare it. (Bereishit 18:10)
And Abraham ran to the cattle – Abraham was quite elderly at this point, weak from his circumcision, and had 318 members of his household. Nevertheless, he refused to delegate this job to others and insisting on carrying it out himself, so great was his love for the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim (welcoming guests).
He gave it to the lad – This was Ishmael and Abraham was training him in the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim. – Rashi
The Jewish people are experts in Hachnasat Orchim, always ready and willing to take in others and care for them. No doubt, this was encoded in our spiritual genes by our ancestor Abraham who excelled in this regard. Fascinatingly, the Arabs too, are famed for their fastidious adherence to the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, and this too, has its roots in this incident since Abraham made a point of training their ancestor Ishmael in this mitzvah as well.
“They said to him, ‘Where is Sarah, your wife?’ He said ‘Behold, she is in the tent.” (Bereishit 18:17)
She is in the tent – The angels intended to elicit this response from Abraham and to emphasize that she was a modest person. – Rashi
Why would the angels choose to highlight and compliment Sarah’s modesty precisely at this moment, and why would the Torah find it necessary to record this for posterity? How is it relevant to the story it seeks to convey? In truth, Abraham already had a son named Ishmael who would have loved to be selected as the bearer of his legacy. Yet, the Almighty told Abraham that this could not be case. Rather, from Sarah would emerge the offspring that would bear his legacy. The reason: Sarah was a modest woman and a holy and spiritually driven nation could only emerge from someone steeped in modesty. Thus, as the angel was about to announce the news that they would finally merit the son they waited for so long, he also pointed out the reason that Sarah was chosen to give birth to this child; her outstanding quality of modesty that was a necessary element in the development of the Jewish people.
“He [Abraham] planted an Eishel in Beer Sheva, and there he called in the name of G-d, Eeternal Lord.” Bereishit 21:33
Planted An Eishel – Rav and Shmuel offer varying opinions on the meaning of the word “Eishel.” One says that it was an orchard from which fruit was brought for the guests, and the other maintains that means a guest-house, which contained a wide variety of fruit for its guests. – Rashi
Planted An Eishel – The word Eishel is comprised of three letters: Aleph, Shin, Lamed. These three letters are the first letters of the words, Achilah [food], Shtiyah [drink], Leviah [escorting]. Abraham provided for his guests in all three ways. These three letters can also be rearranged to spell the word, “sha’al” which means to request. This indicates that Abraham invited his guests to request whatever their heart desired and then strove to fulfill their requests. – Midrash Tehillim 37
And there he proclaimed – By means of that Eishel, the Name of the Almighty was called “Lord” to the entire world. For after the guests had eaten their fill, Abraham would tell them, “Bless the One from Whose food you have eaten. Perhaps you believe that you have eaten my food, but, truly, from the One Who by His word brought the world into being, have you eaten.” – Rashi
Key to Abraham’s stunning success in promoting his views of monotheism in a hostile environment, was his unique ability to empathize with the needs of every single person who crossed his threshold from both a spiritual and material standpoint. Just as he nourished them physically, he nourished them spiritually by encouraging them to recognize the source of his bounty. Our own success in inculcating the message of Torah and Judaism in our children and brethren is directly proportionate to our dedication to attending not just to their spiritual needs, but to their physical needs as well.
Guests of Honor
“He lifted his eyes and saw, and behold three men were standing near him. He saw them, and ran from the door of the tent to greet them, and he bowed down to the earth. He said, ‘My Master, if I have found favor in Your eyes, please do not pass by your servant.’” (Bereishit 18:2, 3)
Do not pass by your servant – “Rabbi Yehudah said in the name of Rav, ‘Hosting guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence,’ for it says, ‘My Master, if I have found favor in your eyes do not pass by your servant.’” – Talmud, Tractate Shabbos 127a
Our Sages explain that the Almighty was visiting Abraham when he saw the three travelers. Rather than concentrate on his meeting with the Divine Presence, he interrupted the visit to pursue them and invite them to his tent.
The mitzvah of inviting wayfarers is fraught with spiritual danger. They may discuss matters that are inappropriate for a Jewish home, such as Lashon Hara (evil speech). Tending to their needs may require that one interrupt his daily Torah study session. Nevertheless, if Abraham interrupted his encounter with the Almighty in order to host these guests it teaches us that one must lay aside his spiritual concerns to fulfill this command. – Baal Shem Tov
It is worth noting that Abraham did whatever was in his power to ensure that they pose as little spiritual danger as possible, as is evidenced by his request that they wash their feet since they worshipped dust, and he did not want them to bring it into his tent.
The reason one may interrupt his spiritual pursuits to fulfill the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim (welcoming guests) is because doing so actually leads to greater access to the Divine Presence, which rests upon those who take in needy people into their homes. – Yismach Moshe
Rabbi Leib Chasman zt”l, a well-known Torah scholar, once visited with the sainted Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) and stayed with him over Shabbat. When they arrived home following the Friday night prayers, the Chofetz Chaim surprised him by skipping the traditional singing of Shalom Aleichem and commencing the meal immediately. It was only once they ate the gefilte fish that the Chofetz Chaim arose and sang Shalom Aleichem. Unable to contain his curiosity over this departure from normative practice, Rabbi Leib inquired of him why he’d broken with tradition. Smiling, the Choetz Chaim responded, “Knowing that you’re traveling, there was no doubt in my mind that you must be very hungry. The Angels, on the other hand, don’t eat food and are not hungry at all. I figured it was okay to make them wait until I satisfied your hunger, and then I would attend to them.”
I Shall Return
“And he (i.e. the angel) said, ‘I will return to you this time next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son.’ Sarah was listening behind the entrance of the tent, and he was on the other side.” (Bereishit 18:10)
This time next year – This incident occurred on Passover and Isaac was born the following Passover. – Rashi
And he was on the other side – Translated literally the verse reads, “And he was after him.” This is because the angels were hinting to the fact that this child would not be like the first child born to Abraham from Hagar (i.e. Ishmael). That child would not follow in Abraham’s footsteps, but this one would follow “after him.” Isaac would emulate Abraham’s lofty ways and perpetuate his mission faithfully. – Meshech Chochmah
I will return to you this time next year – We do not find, however, that the angel returned the next year. He did not actually mean that he would return, but rather that his words would be fulfilled at this time, which is akin to him returning. – Rabbeinu Bachya
The Sefer Pardes HaGadol of Rashi suggests that the Angel did indeed return, but not the next year, rather, at the time that he’d be needed to bring Isaac back to life. When Isaac lay on the Altar prepared to be offered up as a human sacrifice, the verse relates that suddenly, “An Angel of G-d called to him (Abraham) and said to him, ‘Do not send forth your hand to harm the lad.’” The Angel that prevented him from harming Isaac was the very same Angel who promised to return and did so at the most opportune moment.
“Abraham returned to his attendants, and they rose and went together to Be’er Sheva and Abraham dwelt in Be’er Sheva.” (Bereishit 22:19)
Abraham returned to his attendants – Where was Isaac? Why did he not return with Abraham and the attendants? He left immediately to study Torah at the Yeshivah of Shem and Eiver. – Yalkut Shimoni, Remez 102
Why was it important for Isaac to go to the Yeshivah precisely at this point? Considering the mortal danger he had just been in, had he returned with his father, Abraham’s love for him would have grown to overwhelming proportions and it would have appeared as if Abraham regretted his decision to offer him on the Altar. Instead, Abraham asked Isaac to part from him so that no one could accuse him of being unwilling to separate from his son and having been seized by temporary madness when he agreed to offer him on the Altar. – Sifsei Kohen
The commentators highlight the words, “and went together,” and point out that the verse does not add much to our understanding of the events. Once it told us that he returned to his attendants, isn’t it rather obvious that they went back home together? They explain that following the sublime events of Akeidat Yitzchak, Abraham was on a very exalted spiritual level, and one might have thought that he would no longer agree to interact with those on lesser spiritual levels. To dispel this misconception the verse informs us that he “went together” with his attendants, i.e. he treated them as equals just as he had before his encounter with the Divine. Regardless of his own spiritual ascent, he never looked down on others who hadn’t managed to scale similar heights.
Hey, I Never Knew That
The parsha begins with G-d visiting Abraham in a prophetic vision (Bereishit 18:1) In this vision, three people appeared in the distance. Abraham saw them, ran to greet them, and said (Bereishit 18:3), “My master, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not leave your servant.” He then continued to offer food, drink and comfort to the strangers. To whom did Abraham address the request not to leave? There is a debate among the commentaries whether “my masters” is plural and refers to the three men; whether it is singular and refers to the leader of the group; or whether “my master” is actually the name of G-d, and Abraham is addressing G-d Himself (Rashi, Ramban, Rabbeinu Bachya ad loc.). Rashi cites the last opinion and explains that if we read “my Master” as G-d’s name then Abraham was actually asking G-d, in the middle of a prophecy, to wait while he took care of his guests! The Talmud deduces from this that “Greater is hospitality to guests than even being in the Divine Presence” (Shabbos 127a).
“And Abraham said, ‘My masters, if I have found favor in your eyes, do not leave your servant’” (Bereishit 18:3). According to this translation, Abraham is addressing the men/angels who came to visit him as “my masters.” However, Rashi (and Nachmanides) also cites an opinion that the first word of the phrase is “G-d,” and that Abraham is asking G-d not to leave him while he attends to his guests. The commentaries note that all depends on pronunciation. If the word for “master” is read with a patach (אַ) underneath the last syllable, as ado-nai it means “my masters.” If it is read with a kamatz (אָ) underneath the last syllable as Ado-noy (Ashkenazi pronunciation), then it means “G-d” (Rabbeinu Bachya).
Word of the Week
Melchizedek is described as a “כהן — kohen to the exalted G-d” (Bereishit 14:18). This is the first time that the word kohen is used in the Torah, and it is usually translated as “priest.” Onkelos’s Aramaic translation renders the term differently depending on context. When the Torah speaks of a kohen of G-d, he translates it as shamasha — servant (as he does here) or just leaves the word as kohen. When the priest is a pagan, he translates the word as rabba, meaning “great one” or “master.” It is possible that Onkelos is teaching us that a monotheistic kohen is a humble servant of G-d and of the Jewish people. In contrast, a pagan priest uses his status to rule and master his people, and even regarding the deity that he worships considers himself somewhat of a master, who can manipulate and control the gods.
תמים – perfect
G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself and the men of his family and household. In the preamble to this commandment, G-d told Abraham, “Walk before Me and be tamim — perfect” (Bereishit 17:1). Generally, the word tam means “complete,” so that when G-d told Abraham to circumcise himself, He was telling him to complete himself physically through circumcision and spiritually through the covenant with G-d that circumcision represented (Radak, Sefer Hashorashim). Later, when the Torah commands every Jew to be “tamim with the L-rd, your G-d” (Devarim 18:13), the meaning is similar: to be “totally or completely faithful” to G-d and not to rely on divination, magic, astrology and other superstitions (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Living Torah).
Nachmanides asks what precisely the sin of Sodom was (Bereishit 19:5). Nowhere in the text of our parsha is the sin that caused the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah explicitly stated. The Torah writes, “And the L-rd said, ‘Because the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grave’ ” (Bereishit 18:20), and later we see that the inhabitants of Sodom threatened Lot and his guests (Bereishit 19:4-11), which definitely gives us a clue as to their nature. The prophet Ezekiel reveals the nature of Sodom’s sin quite clearly: “Behold, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: pride, surfeit of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters; and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). The lesson is quite amazing! Sodom worshipped idols, engaged in sexual immorality, and certainly were guilty of many sins, and yet the prophet points out that the sin for which the city was condemned was their refusal to do kindness to strangers despite their wealth and resources (Nachmanides).
Rashi explains that G-d appeared to Abraham, who was recuperating from circumcision, in order to “visit the sick.” Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was asked if it is possible to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick (bikur cholim) by telephone. He notes that there are three components to this mitzvah: praying for the patient; attending to his needs; encouraging him and lifting his spirits. Fulfilling any one of these is a fulfillment of the mitzvah, and if one is not able to visit in person, a phone call can certainly accomplish some, if not all, of the goals of visiting the sick (Igrot Moshe, Y”D 1:233). Rabbi Asher Weiss disagrees and maintains that the mitzvah as described by the sages is specifically “visiting” the sick, and although through a phone call one is fulfilling the mitzvah of kindness, one is not fulfilling bikur cholim (Minchat Asher, Bereishit 20:4).
Parsha at a Glance
Vayeira begins three days after Abraham, at the age of ninety-nine, had circumcised himself upon G-d’s command. The third day after a circumcision is the most painful, and the Torah recounts how G-d Himself performed the mitzvah (commandment) of visiting the sick by appearing to Abraham on that day. In deference to Abraham’s discomfort, G-d brought a heat wave to discourage people from venturing from their homes. Instead, G-d sent three angels in the guise of men to pass by Abraham’s tent. This allowed Abraham to perform his cherished commandment of welcoming guests.
The angels informed Abraham that Sarah would have a son in a year’s time. Upon hearing this, Sarah laughed to herself, thinking that she had passed the point of being able to have children and that her husband was old. Significantly, when G-d chided Sarah for not fully believing that He can perform any miracle, G-d changed the story slightly to protect Abraham’s feelings. Sarah had stated that Abraham was old; but G-d told Abraham that Sarah had said that she was old. This episode teaches that it is permissible to lie in the interests of maintaining peace.
After the angels departed, G -d informed Abraham that the immorality of Sodom had reached the point of no return and that the city would be destroyed. Abraham prayed on their behalf, asking G-d to save the cities if fifty righteous people could be found there. When G-d agreed, Abraham continued to beseech G-d until He agreed to nullify His decree even if just ten righteous people could be found.
Abraham’s nephew Lot had settled in Sodom and had to be saved due to Abraham’s merit. When the angels arrived, Lot pleaded with them to come into his home, as he, too, maintained the commandment of welcoming guests. There was only one glitch: in Sodom, welcoming guests was punishable by death. An angry mob descended on Lot’s house and demanded that the guests be handed over so that they could abuse them. Lot refused and, strangely, offered his daughters to the mob instead.
At that moment, the angels struck the mob with blindness. They then told Lot to run and warn his sons-in-law that Sodom would be destroyed in the morning, and that they must prepare to escape. However, when he did so, they scoffed at the idea that their “well-ordered” society would be destroyed in less than twenty-four hours.
In the morning, Lot escaped with his wife and daughters. G-d rained down a storm of fire and sulfur, completely overturning Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding area. Lot’s wife disobeyed a commandment not to look back at the destruction and was turned into a pillar of salt. Upon seeing the destruction, Lot’s daughters believed that no men remained to perpetuate humanity. The older daughter intoxicated her father for the purpose of bearing children and convinced her younger sister to do so as well. Two nations, Ammon and Moav, emerged from this episode.
After the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham traveled to Gerar in the south. Upon entering the city, Abraham stated that Sarah was his sister. She was promptly taken away from him and brought to Abimelech, the king. G-d appeared to Abimelech in a dream and warned him that Sarah was a married woman and that his kingdom faced destruction for what he had done.
After Abimelech returned Sarah and made restitution, he asked why Abraham misled him on such a crucial matter. Abraham responded that Abimelech’s people did not greet him with hospitality, but with questions about whether Sarah was his wife. From this, Abraham saw that there was no fear of G-d in that place, and that he had to protect himself.
The portion continues with the birth of Isaac, who was born when Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah ninety years old. As Isaac grew, however, Sarah realized that Ishmael was a negative influence and could not remain in the household. Abraham was at first distressed at the notion of distancing Ishmael, but G-d declared that Sarah’s understanding of the situation was correct, and that Abraham must send Hagar and Ishmael away.
The portion next recounts the Binding of Isaac, one of the most stirring events in the Torah. Without hesitation, Abraham heeded G-d’s call to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. However, at the last moment, as Abraham raised the knife to slaughter his only son, G-d stopped him. Abraham proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was a G-d-fearing man. In return, G-d blessed Abraham that his children would be like the stars of the heavens and the sand of the seashore, and that the nations of the world would bless themselves by his offspring. The site of the Binding of Isaac later became the location of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The portion concludes with Abraham receiving word that Rebecca, who would become Isaac’s wife, had been born to his brother Nahor.