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Perceiving Providence (Vayera)

The following are three short, thematically connected thoughts on this week’s Parshah, Vayera. For a summary of the Parshah, please click here. For last year’s article on Vayera, “Shakespeare and Sodom,” please click here. For more on the new “short thoughts” format, please click here.


Remembrance vs. Revelation

When Hashem announces that He intends to destroy Sodom for its wickedness, Avraham protests vociferously—in no small part, it seems, because his nephew, Lot, is among the city’s inhabitants. Though Avraham ultimately fails to reverse Hashem’s decree, Hashem does spare Lot in the end: “God remembered [ז.כ.ר] Abraham, and He sent Lot out of the midst of the destruction…” (Gen. 19:29). Yet, surprisingly, Hashem never informs Avraham that his nephew has been spared: indeed, all Avraham sees when he “looks over Sodom and Gomorrah” is that “the smoke of the earth had risen like the smoke of a furnace” (Gen. 19:28).

So there is a distinction to be drawn between divine remembrance and divine revelation: Hashem may remember His creatures—He may even redeem them—but the effects of this “remembrance” are not always revealed to us explicitly. This distinction carries over from our comments in the notes to Parshat Noach:

After forty days of flood, “God remembered [ז.כ.ר] Noach… and passed wind over the earth, and the waters subsided” (Gen. 8:1). Notice, though, that Hashem does not inform Noach that he has been “remembered.” Indeed, it is not until fourteen verses (and several months!) later that Hashem communicates with Noach for the first time since the onset of the flood; in the meantime, Noach waits anxiously, unaware of the state of the world outside, unsure of what the future ahead holds in store.

In this regard, Noach’s fate is rather like that of Bnei Israel at the dawn of their exodus from Egypt: Hashem “hears” their cries, “remembers” [ז.כ.ר] His covenant with their forefathers, “sees” and “knows” of their plight (Exod. 2:24-25)—but redemption is not immediate, and no communication punctuates the interim, so that there are effectively no tangible effects of Hashem’s “remembrance” in which the people can take solace.

We do not always perceive “redemption” in our own lives; but this does not mean that Hashem does not “remember” us. As in the days of Noach, Hashem is often directing the “winds of change” in our favor without our even realizing that it is so. In the meantime, our challenge, along with Tennyson, is to “trust that somehow good/ will be the final goal of ill… that nothing walks with aimless feet/ that not one life shall be destroyed/ or cast as rubbish to the void/ when God hath made the pile complete.”

The Angel’s Hidden Message

After being banished from Avraham’s house, Hagar and her son, Ishmael, wander in the wilderness and run out of water. Hagar, despondent, “cast the child under one of the bushes, and went and set down from afar… for she said, ‘Let me not see [אל אראה] the child’s death.’” (Gen. 21:15-16). At that point, an angel appears and proclaims: “What is with you, Hagar? [מה לך] Fear not [אל תירא]” (Gen. 21:17). Hagar’s eyes are then “opened,” and she perceives a “well of water” before her (Gen. 21:18).

This episode serves as a prime example of the ways in which our Torah plays with phonetics to develop multiple layers of meaning simultaneously. Parsed differently, the words מה לך (“What is with you?”), become מלאך, i.e., angel; and the words אל תיראי, (“fear not!”) become אל תראי, i.e., “you shall not see.” So there are in fact two conversations taking place in this text: the angel assures Hagar that she need not fear, and if she listens closely, she can already discern why that is so: מלאך, הגר—“It is an angel, Hagar!” אל תראי—In response to your concern, “let me not see the death of the child,” I declare: “You shall not see!”

Life is constantly confronting us with variants of the question, מה לך? Our task is to recognize the solution within the very challenge: to “open our eyes” and discover, like Hagar, that Hashem is constantly sending מלאכים, messengers, who call out to us in double entendres. If we choose to hear their messages, and allow ourselves to be guided by them, we may find salvation much closer than we had expected.

Avraham’s Guests and the Binding of Yitzchak

In our Parshah’s opening scene, Avraham attends to guests who prophesy that he and his wife, Sarah, will bear a son; in its closing scene, he is commanded to take this son, Yitzchak, and offer him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah.[1] The Torah seems to connect these two scenes by planting subtle echoes of the former within the latter. Consider:

  • The episodes are introduced with similarly phrased requests. Avraham to the guests: “Take, please [יקח נא] some water…” (Gen. 18:4). Hashem to Avraham: “Take, please [קח נא] your son…” (Gen. 22:2).
  • Motif of “lifting eyes and seeing,” and of “three.” At the beginning of the Parshah, Avraham “lifts his eyes and sees” [וישא עיניו וירא] the “three” guests (Gen. 18:2). At the end of the Parshah, Avraham “lifts his eyes and sees” [וישא עיניו וירא] the mountain upon which he is to sacrifice Yitzchak. This occurs on the “third” day (Gen. 22:4).—Note: Later, Avraham will “lift his eyes and see” [וישא… את עיניו וירא] a ram caught in a tree by its horns, which he will sacrifice in Yitzchak’s stead (Gen. 22:13).
  • A “lad” / “group of lads” are involved in an act of slaughter. At the beginning of the Parshah, Avraham instructs the “lad” [נער] to slaughter a calf for his guests (Gen. 18:7). At the end of the Parshah, Avraham is accompanied by his “lads” [נעריו], whom he instructs to tend the donkey while he ascends the mountain with Yitzchak—and Yitzchak himself is referred to as “the lad” [הנער] (Gen. 22:3, 5, 12, 19).
  • Motif of “returning” with Yitzchak: At the beginning of the Parshah, Hashem promises Avraham that He will “return” [שוב אשוב] next year, and by that time, Sarah will have a son, Yitzchak (Gen. 18:10, 14). At the end of the Parshah, Avraham tells his lads that he and Yitzchak will “return to you together” [נשובה] after worshipping Hashem on the mountain (Gen. 22:5); in fact, however, the text only mentions Avraham’s “return” [וישב] (Gen. 22:19).
  • Motif of “eating/consuming.” At the beginning of the Parshah, Avraham serves his guests food, and they “eat” [ויאכלו] (Gen. 18:8). At the end of the Parshah, it is Yitzchak himself whom Avraham is going to serve as “food”—hence, the sacrificial knife is appropriately termed a “מאכלת” (Gen. 22:8).
  • Lying under or above “trees.” At the beginning of the Parshah, Avraham’s guests recline “under a tree” (Gen. 18:4, 8). At the end of the Parshah, Avraham prepares “trees” for the altar, and places his son “above the trees” to sacrifice him (Gen. 22:3, 6-7, and 9—two instances).
  • Characters notice that someone / something is missing. The guests to Avraham: “Where is [איה] Sarah, your wife?” (Gen. 18:9). Yitzchak to Avraham: “Where is [איה] the lamb for the burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7).—Note: In both episodes, Sarah is conspicuously absent.
  • Motif of “prostration.” At the beginning of the Parshah, Avraham “prostrates himself” [וישתחו] before his guests (Gen. 18:2). At the end of the Parshah, Avraham tells the lads that he and Yitzchak are ascending the mountain to “prostrate themselves” [נשתחוה] before Hashem (Gen. 22:5).
  • News of birth. At the beginning of the Parshah, the guests deliver news of Yitzchak’s impending birth (Gen. 18:10). At the end of the Parshah, Avraham receives news that his brother has given birth to a number of offspring—including Rivkah, Yitzchak’s wife-to-be (Gen. 22:20-24).
  • Motif of Hashem “appearing.” At the beginning of the Parshah, Hashem “appears” to Avraham [‘וירא ה] (Gen. 18:1). At the end of the Parshah, Avraham names the site of Yitzchak’s near-sacrifice “Hashem will see” [ה’ יראה] for “on this mountain, Hashem will appear” [ה’ יראה] (Gen. 22:14).

The connections between the episode of Yitzchak’s binding and the episode of Avraham’s guests are meaningful at a number of levels. Included among these:

  • The contrast between the acts of kindness with which Avraham is engaged at the beginning of the Parshah, and the act of cruelty which Hashem demands of him at the end of the Parshah, serves to underscore the difficulty Avraham must have faced in obeying Hashem’s will: (a) it involved suppressing his compassionate nature; (b) it seemed patently unfair: was this his reward for a lifetime of good deeds?
  • At the beginning of the Parshah, Sarah (Gen. 18:12)—like Avraham before her (Gen. 17:17)—laughs incredulously when informed that she will bear a son at her advanced age. Hashem is displeased with this reaction: “Is anything to wondrous for Hashem?” He charges, rhetorically (Gen. 18:14). In this light, Yitzchak’s binding takes on new meaning: Avraham and Sarah did not believe that they would bear a son; Hashem responds by requesting that this son be returned to Him, as it were.
  • Against all the differences between these two episodes stands one striking constant: Avraham’s unwavering loyalty to Hashem. “Hashem gives, and Hashem takes away; blessed is Hashem forever,” declares Iyov (Job 1:21). That is Avraham’s attitude across our Parshah. His fortunes rise and fall; a son is given to him, then apparently taken away—yet Avraham continues to serve Hashem all the same.
  • In the end, of course, Avraham’s son is not taken away. On balance, then, the episode of Yitzchak’s binding and the episode of Avraham’s guest are not that different: in both, Avraham faces the prospect of dying without a son to carry on his legacy; and, in both, Hashem intervenes to reverse his fate. The message, for Avraham, is singular, and he articulates it explicitly: ה’ יראה—no matter how hopeless a situation may seem, we can rest assured that, ultimately, Hashem will “show us the way.” Just as ‘וירא ה, Hashem appeared to us in the past, ה’ יראה–His presence in our lives will become apparent again, if only we seek it out.[2]

Shabbat shalom!


Notes:

[1] The “binding of Yitzchak” raises ethical issues that fall outside the scope of our current discussion. For now, a couple of points to bear in mind: (a) Avraham does not actually sacrifice Yitzchak in the end: as he is about to do so, it is revealed to him that this was “just a test.” (b) The practice of child sacrifice, which was prevalent in the Ancient Near East, is forbidden by the Torah, and those who engage in it are consistently rebuked throughout Tanach.

[2] The interpretation of the binding of Yitzchak presented in this bullet point is based largely upon Dr. Yoram Hazony’s essay on the subject in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. According to Dr. Hazony, Avraham sensed all along that Hashem would somehow spare him from sacrificing his son: he knew Hashem too well to believe that Hashem would desire Yitzchak’s slaughter, but he was prepared to obey orders until such time as Hashem revealed His “true” intention. Hence, when Avraham tells his lads that “we [i.e. both Yitzchak and I] shall return” (Gen. 22:5), and when he assures Yitzchak that “Hashem will show us the lamb to slaughter” (Gen. 22:8), he  he is speaking sincerely: Avraham truly believes that Hashem will “show him the way out” of this bind. That this is the meaning Avraham draws from the ordeal is best evidenced by the name he chooses to bestow upon the site of the would-be sacrifice at the end of the episode: “ה’ יראה.”

Thoughts? Questions? Insights? Please feel free to share in the comments section below. Your feedback is greatly appreciated!


5 Comments

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thank you Alex! Great point through the story of Hagar in the importance of keeping our eyes, ears and hearts open at all times. Shabbat Shalom.

  2. Paul Shaviv says:

    On Rosh Hashanah we read the story of Avraham and his two sons – one is to be expelled into the desert, and one is sent to be sacrificed on Mt Moriah. On Yom KIppur we read the story of the Se’irim – one is to be expelled into the desert, and one is sent to be sacrificed on Mt Moriah (= makom Bet Hamikdash). It is the same story. Meaning??? I have been wondering about this for many years without satisfactory resolution.

    • alexmaged says:

      Fascinating observation!
      What might the Torah have intended through this connection (or Chazal, by highlighting it for us through the juxtaposition of Rosh Hashana / Yom Kippur readings)?
      A couple of suggestions:
      (1) At the simplest level, the parallels to Yitzchak/Yishmael serve to remind Israel of the vastly different fates that await them as a result of the choices that they make on this “day of atonement,” by invoking a familiar precedent from within their national collective memory. Yitzchak chose to serve Hashem and thereby earned his place within the covenantal community; Yishmael mocked it (and, per Chazal, committed the sins of murder, idolatry etc. as well)—and was banished in consequence. In a sense, these are the same two paths that lie before the Israelites each Yom Kippur.
      (2) Yom Kippur is the day on which we gain atonement for our sins. We should not mistake this to mean that all sins and all sinners are unconditionally welcome into the covenantal community. Only through teshuvah, Chazal teach us, is atonement achieved—both bein adam l’makom and bein adam l’chavero. Divine arrangements aside, then, we as a society must be prepared to declare that some behaviors—barring reform—fall beyond the pale of what we can accommodate. Our model in this respect is Avraham: A man of supreme compassion who struggled mightily when called upon to banish Yishmael, but who ultimately did so, in accordance with an explicit divine mandate, in order to preserve the safety and integrity of his family. Perhaps that is part of the meaning of the Seirim ceremony: to remind ourselves, on the day of forgiveness, that even forgiveness has its limits. There are no “free passes” for those who, like Yishmael, fail to make amends. (Incidentally: The stark moral gap dividing those systems which espouse an ethic of “turning the cheek” and those which educate towards greater accountability is vividly exposed in Simon Wiesenthal’s The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. Highly recommended!)
      There’s more to delve into here, for sure…
      Shabbat shalom and thank you for your stimulating question! 🙂
      Alex

      • Yaakov Beasley says:

        I once heard the same idea from Dr. Yael Ziegler, and she developed it around the Rav’s essay in Al haTeshuva of the two types of repentance – leaving the sins behind or integrating them into the new improved personality … see also R. Hattin’s discussion of Akeidat Yishmael at the VBM website for all the parallels between the two stories …

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