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Torah Sparks

November 12, 2011 – 15 Heshvan 5772

Annual: Genesis 18:1 - 22:24 (Etz Hayim p. 99; Hertz p. 63)
Triennial: Genesis 19:1 – 20:18 (Etz Hayim p. 104; Hertz p. 66)
Haftarah: II Kings 4:1 – 37 (Etz Hayim p. 124; Hertz p. 76)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser


As Abraham sits in his tent, God appears to him in the form of three angelic visitors, who are greeted with eager hospitality. They tell him that Sarah will bear him a son, Isaac, and Sarah laughs at the prospect of fertility. Subsequently, God tells Abraham about his intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, along with the morally corrupt people who live there. Abraham unsuccessfully intercedes with God, citing the injustice to any righteous citizens. Not even 10 worthy people can be identified, however. The corruption of Sodom seems confirmed when the men of that city, with apparently salacious motives, surround Lot’s house, demanding, to no avail, that he surrender his two remaining angelic guests to them. Lot and his family are spared, escaping the destruction of the cities, though Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt when despite God’s instructions she turns back to look at the desolation. Lot’s sons-in-law, refusing to accompany him, die along with the rest of Sodom. Seeking refuge in a cave, Lot’s daughters make their father drunk; the incestuous unions that resulted produce Ammon and Moab, progenitors of Israel’s morally suspect historic foes. After immigrating to Gerar, Sarah is taken by Abimelech and eventually returns to Abraham, in a literary reprise of the previous parasha’s wife-sister motif. Isaac is born as promised; he is circumcised and eventually weaned. At Sarah’s behest, Abraham banishes Hagar and Ishmael. Mother and son survive their wilderness exile, fortified by angelic guidance and a divine promise that Ishmael, too, will found a nation. Abraham makes a covenant with Abimelech. God tests Abraham, commanding him to offer his beloved son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Compliantly and all but silently taking his son to Mount Moriah, Abraham places him atop an altar, but an angel stays his hand as he raises the sacrificial knife. Abraham’s reverence for God, and God’s covenantal promise of blessing to Abraham, both are confirmed with renewed vigor.

Theme #1: “Unsighted Sources”

And they pressed hard against the person of Lot, and moved forward to break the door. But the men stretched out their hands and pulled Lot into the house with them, and shut the door. And the people who were at the entrance of the house, young and old, they struck with blinding light, so that they were helpless to find the entrance. (Genesis 19:9- 11)

Derash: Study

“Blinding light: that is, a darkening of the eyes and the heart.” (Ibn Ezra)

“You will listen and listen, but never understand. You will look and look, but never see.” (Isaiah 6:9)

“There are none so blind as those that will not see.” (Matthew Henry, 1662-1714, Presbyterian minister)

“Not just ‘total blindness,’ as the word before us is generally rendered, but a sudden stroke. And that is just what the term suggests: a blinding flash emanating from the angels – who thereby abandon their human disguise – which would induce immediate, if temporary, loss of sight, much like desert or snow blindness… Thus the very word evokes a numinous image. It is a matter of magic as opposed to myopia.” (E. A. Speiser)

“Each wrong act brings with it its own anesthetic, dulling the conscience and blinding it against further light, and sometimes for years.” (Dame Emilie Rose Macaulay)

“The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” (Helen Keller)

Questions for Discussion

A number of the sources provided above, including Helen Keller and Matthew Henry, suggest that “blinding light” was a particularly apt consequence for the men of Sodom. Was it spiritual short-sightedness or moral myopia that afflicted Sodom’s inhabitants? Why, after being blinded by the angels, did the men of Sodom continue to advance – albeit fruitlessly – toward Lot’s door? What is the significance of this single-minded hostility?

If light generally is associated with insight, revelation, goodness, Torah, why did it have no impact beyond the physical on the citizens of Sodom, especially if, as Professor Speiser posits, the identity of the angels was now clear to all?

What does Ibn Ezra mean? Why would the angels inflict further “darkness of the heart” – evil, moral turpitude, self-destructive obstinacy – on their attackers? How does this compare to God “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh throughout the 10 plagues? How does each narrative inform the other?

Lot’s protracted and emphatic if somewhat morally inscrutable appeal to his neighbors generally is understood to reflect his duties as a host. Why did the messengers of God remain silent, compelling Lot – a morally fallible mortal, to be sure – to speak on their behalf? Why did they not address the mob themselves?

Where in today’s society do we witness willful moral blindness and lack of vision? What might we do to appeal for a new perspective, even if we find ourselves in a besieged minority, or as a lonely single voice? In such circumstances, how can we be confident that the angels, as it were, are on our side?

Theme #2: Family Circus or Hagar the Horrible?

Early next morning Abraham took some bread and a skin of water, and gave them to Hagar. He placed them over her shoulder, together with the child, and sent her away. And she wandered about in the wilderness of Beersheba. When the water was gone from the skin, she left the child under one of the bushes, and went and sat down at a distance, a bow-shot away; for she thought, ‘Let me not look on as the child dies.’ And sitting thus afar, she burst into tears. (Genesis 21:14-16)

Derash: Study

“The story of Hagar is the story of Israel. The story of Sarah and Hagar is not a story of ‘us’ and ‘other’; but between ‘us’ and ‘another us.’ Hagar is the archetype of Israel. She is us.” (Tikva Fremer-Kensky)

“God’s sweeping statement of support for Sarah rings through the ages: ‘Whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says.’ But, ironically, Sarah speaks no more. In fact, the living Sarah disappears from the text and she is mentioned again only in death. Does the divine seal of approval carry too much responsibility? Does it render her silent? Is her task completed when she ensures her son’s succession to Abraham’s patrimony? Banished to the wilderness, Hagar, too, is silent. She bursts into tears. God, curiously, does not attend to her emotional outburst, but to Ishmael’s.” (Anne Lapidus Lerner)

“In Abraham’s time, a skilled archer could shoot an arrow 175-200 yards. Now 175-200 yards is a long way. Were you to stand 200 yards away from somebody, and were you to throw in some intervening trees and hills or sand dunes, that person at the other end may very well disappear. So, if we measure that bowshot from Ishmael’s perspective, he’s probably feeling abandoned. His own mother seems to have become a stranger even to him.” (Rabbi Jaron Matlow)

“Hagar could not bear to abandon her son, nor could she bear to be near him to watch him die, so she moved to a place opposite him to wait. What should she have done? A woman of faith would have been praying to God and asking for His intervention. It was very selfish of Hagar to have separated herself from her son because she thought, ‘I cannot watch the boy die.’ She was thinking of her needs, but not her son’s – Ishmael would not have wanted to have died alone.” (Kathryn Capoccia)

“How came they here/ What burst of Christian hate,/ What persecution merciless and blind, Drove over the sea – that desert desolate – / These Ishmaels and Hagars of mankind? (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Jewish Cemetery at Newport”)

Questions for Discussion

Professor Fremer-Kensky asserts that Hagar represents the people Israel. Longfellow also uses Hagar and Ishmael as a symbol of the Jewish people. What aspects of the Jewish national and historical experience are reflected in Ishmael and Hagar, who generally are thought of as forbears of the Arab nations? What aspects of the Israelite/Jewish experience does Sarah, then, represent? How does this change our reading of the text? How does this affect our understanding of this chapter on Rosh Hashanah? How might this interpretation productively serve contemporary geopolitics?

Does Hagar abandon her son, behaving toward him as a stranger (see Rabbi Matlow)? Is it fair to expect the banished maidservant to act like “a woman of faith” (see Kathryn Capoccia)? What might Hagar have done differently to express her love despite her pain?

As Professor Lerner points out, the text subsequently says that God heard Ishmael’s voice, not Hagar’s weeping. Is this a divine referendum on Hagar’s actions? A foreshadowing of Ishmael’s subsequent stature? A function of Ishmael’s role as a child? Is this a flattering depiction of God?

What are we to make of the ironic fact that the Bible reports no further words of Sarah’s after Abraham is told to listen to (that is, to obey) whatever she tells him? Professor Lerner lists some possibilities. Is Sarah’s silence a divine referendum on her actions toward Ishmael and Hagar?

Halachah L’Maaseh

The reception Abraham gives his angelic visitors often is cited as the model of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests into your home (see Sifrei Ekev 11:10). It should be noted, however, that according to many authorities, we do not fulfill this mitzvah (at least not at the highest level) every time we play host. For example, hosting neighbors may be understood as an investment in friendship, with foreseeable personal and material benefits, rather than fulfillment of a sacred duty (see Bet Yosef Orach Chayim 333). Hachnasat orchim ideally involves hosting those who are away from home and need a place to say, whether we provide them with accommodations or only a meal (see Terumat Ha-Deshen 1:72 and Orach Chayim 333:1, Rema ad loc). The mitzvah is applicable to both wealthy and needy guests (see Talmud, Sukkah 49B). We are permitted to expend funds designated for tzedakah to provide for needy guests (see Chofetz Chayim, Ahavat Chesed 3:1). It is proper that a host provide special food for guests (see Talmud, Chullin 100A).

Historical Note

In Parashat Vayera, read on November 12, 2011, Abraham and Sarah settle in Beersheba. On November 12, 1953, David Ben-Gurion resigned as prime minister of Israel. Ben- Gurion had stressed the strategic and national importance of the Negev region and, specifically, of Beersheba. It was at his express orders that, through military action, Beersheba came under Israeli control during the War for Independence. Today, Beersheba is home to the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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