Parashat Vayetse – Bavel and Bet-El

וְהָיָה יְ׳הוָה לִי לֵא׳לֹהִים

Parashat Vayetse begins in earnest the section of Sefer Bereishit dedicated to the narratives of the patriarch Yaakov. The first event of the parashah is the revelatory dream Yaakov experiences while fleeing from his brother Esav to find a wife amongst his mother’s family in Haran. What is fascinating about this is that while it is his father Yitzhak who is thought of as following in Avraham’s footsteps, in this story, and throughout the rest of his narratives, Yaakov seems to be almost a new version of Avraham[1], receiving both the same berakhah and traveling the exact same path, in contrast to Yitzhak. The blessing Yaakov receives in the dream includes the phrase “and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Bereishit 28:14), which is exactly the same phrase that appears in Avraham’s first blessing from (א’ (12:3. In contrast, when Yitzhak is blessed by ‘א he is only told, “All the nations of the world will bless themselves by your descendants” (26:5). Both Yaakov and Avraham are told that they will possess the land in all four points of the compass rose (28:14 and 13:14-15). Similarly, while Yitzhak never leaves the land of Canaan, Avraham and Yaakov both travel from Haran to Shekhem, to Bet-El, to Hevron, and they both build altars in Shekhem and Bet-El. Why are these two patriarchs so similar? And, more importantly, what is unique about Yaakov? What does he bring to the table? The answer to this question lies in the meaning of the revelatory dream, and the ramifications it bears for Yaakov’s relationship to ‘א.

Yaakov arrives at Bet-El as the sun sets and so he lays down to sleep, and he dreams (28:11-15). In this dream he sees a sulam, generally translated[2] as “ladder,” standing on the earth with its top reaching to the heavens. ‘א stands atop the sulam as “messengers of God,” generally understood as angels, go up and down it, and blesses Yaakov that he will have innumerable descendants, the land of Canaan, and that he and his descendants will be a source of blessing to the nations of the world. ‘א also promises to be with Yaakov and protect him. While the blessing and the promise are quite clear, the vision of the sulam at the beginning of the dream is an enigma that midrashim and commentaries have been trying to solve since then.

Perhaps most famous is the midrashic comment[3] stating that the angels ascending the sulam were the angels that protected Yaakov within the land of Canaan and the angels descending the sulam were the angels that will protect Yaakov outside the land of Canaan. This explanation has the advantage of being part and parcel of the message delivered in the second half of the dream. There is another midrash[4] that says that the “messengers of God” were Moshe and Aharon, and that the sulam was really Har Sinai. This midrash is based on literary parallels. The nature of the ladder as “rooted  on the earth” and “reaching to the heavens” is paralleled in Shemot 19:17 and Devarim 4:11, while the movements of the “messengers” are paralleled in Shemot 19:3, 14, 18, and 20. The midrash and the Baal HaTurim also both point out that the numerical values of “סלם” and “סיני” are equivalent. Yet another midrash[5] sees the sulam as representative of the historical stage and the “messengers of God” rising and falling upon it as the kingdoms that would dominate and then crumble throughout history, specifically the four nations that would rule over the people of Israel before the redemption. This midrash has the advantage of explaining the historical relevance, both of this passage in the Torah and of the ancestral promise that Yaakov was now inheriting, to Yaakov’s descendants (Bereishit 28:13-14). These are only a few of the approaches to explaining the vision of the sulam and they all have their strengths and weaknesses, but none of them explain the connection to Avraham. To understand that we have to look at the connection between the sulam and the Tower of Bavel.

The Tower of Bavel and the sulam of Yaakov are incredibly similar in many ways. The two stories are unique in Tanakh in describing structures whose tops reach to heaven[6]. Both structures are intended to bridge the gap between Heaven and Earth. Both stories involve the naming of a place based on a godly event (11:9 and 28:19). The Aramaic name for the city of Bavel, ‘babili,’ means the Gate of the Gods, and Yaakov refers to Bet-El as the Gate of Heaven (28:17). Both stories depict ‘א coming to man, either as a revelatory or destructive force. Both stories are also connected by virtue of contrasts between them as well. The story of Yaakov at Bet-El is pervaded with mentions of the stones there, which Yaakov sleeps on (28:11) and from which he makes a monument there (28:18). The Tower of Bavel was made from bricks that the people baked, as the ground in the part of Mesopotamia is mostly clay without rocks to build with. Yaakov’s dream depicts the messengers of God traveling up and down the sulam, the only movement depicted in the Tower narrative is that of ‘א descending to the city. The story also begins with the people traveling from east to west, to the valley of Shiner (11:1), while Yaakov leaves Bet-El and heads to the East (29:1). There is a clear connection between these stories, as well as a great tension, and investigating the entirety of its meaning is beyond the scope of this composition. However, it is worth noting that many have suggested, based on this connection, that the sulam was not a ladder but a staircase or a ramp of the type that people used to climb a ziggurat like the Tower of Bavel, which also explains why Yaakov is standing up stones as monuments; he’s trying to recreate his dream[7].

Assuming that the dream of the sulam is meant to in some way represent or mimic the Tower of Bavel leads to a very interesting observation. Avraham’s story starts immediately after the Tower of Bavel and is in some ways is a reaction to it. While Yaakov’s story in some ways begins before the dream while still in his parents house, he alone becomes the focus starting with the dream of the sulam[8]. Certainly, the dream of the sulam and the promise and blessing from ‘א therein set up and drive the conflicts of the rest of Yaakov’s narrative[9]. Thus, both Avraham and Yaakov begin their stories after the Tower/sulam. However, they follow after this in opposite manners. Avraham was a reaction against the Tower of Bavel. Where the people of Bavel had forced everyone to work together for a joint idolatrous purpose, Avraham was a single person serving a divine goal that would ultimately benefit all of the individuals (Bereishit 12:1-3). Instead of rejecting the sulam, Yaakov’s story is about affirming it[10]. His job is to embrace a life of relationship with ‘א, not to reject an idolatrous and self-serving life. Yaakov’s life is an affirmation of something good, not a negation of something bad.

We all choose to dedicate our lives to different things, whether it is family, religion, social activism, or one of a hundred other things. However, there are different ways we can approach these things. We can dedicate ourselves to them as a way of avoiding or negating something else, or we can dedicate ourselves to them because of what they are. We can embrace them because everything else is false or bad, or we can embrace them because they possess a deep truth and goodness. Choosing something because of what it is, rather than what it is not, often leads to a much fuller relationship with it, as your energy is invested entirely in the thing itself, not in pushing away other things. This is what Yaakov brings to the stories of the Patriarchs. Instead of Avraham who had the job of creating something new, and Yitzhak who continued and strengthened Abraham’s project, Yaakov represents embracing ‘א and His Covenant because of what it is and not what it is not. And this is what is incumbent upon us to do, to choose who we are and who we want to be, what we want to stand for, and to embrace it because of what it is, not because of what it is not.

[1] For more on the connection between Avraham and Yaakov, see this essay by R’ Yonatan Grossman.

[2] In regard to an alternative possible translation, see below.

[3] Notably found in the commentaries of Rashi and Ramban ad loc.

[4] See Ibn Ezra and Radak ad loc. and Bereishit Rabbah 68:12, 16.

[5] Pirkei D’ Rebbe Eliezer 35, brought in Ramban and Rabbeinu Behaye ad loc. Similar midrashim are found in the Midrash Tanhuma and Pirkei D’Rav Kahanah. Also see Seforno ad loc.

[6] For more on the connection between these two stories, see this essay by R’ Amnon Bazak.

[7] For more on this, see this essay by R’ Dr. Joshua Berman.

[8] Notably, the verses immediately before the dream largely deal not with Yaakov but with Esav (28:8-10).

[9] For and in-depth treatment of this, see chapter 3 of John Anderson’s “Jacob and the Divine Trickster”.

[10] This actually helps understand the odd vow that Yaakov makes after the dream. Yaakov seems to be saying that if ‘א keeps the promise made in the dream, then Yaakov will keep his end of the vow. It would be odd that he is questioning ‘א’s fidelity to His Word, except that this is likely Yaakov’s first experience of prophecy and it came in a dream. Thus he has no way of knowing if it was merely a dream or something more, and his struggle thereafter is to affirm it.

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Parashat Toledot – Rivkah’s Oracle and Interpretive Responsibility

וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר

Parashat Toledot opens with the story of the childless Rivkah and Yitzhak praying for a child, and then conceiving. Rivkah experiences a tumultuous feeling within her body, and so she goes to inquire of ‘א (Bereishit 25:22). She receives a detailed prophetic response depicting the future of her progeny. “There are two nations in your belly; Two peoples will depart separate from your womb. One people will be stronger than the other, and the elder will serve the younger” (25:23). This seems like a clear and straightforward statement. Rivkah has twins in her womb, each of which will grow to be a great nation, and the older one will serve the younger. However, if Rivkah is presented with this clear message, then understanding the rest of Rivkah’s story (25:19-34; 26:34-28:9) presents us with numerous difficulties, not the least of which is the question of why Rivkah did not simply tell Yitzhak that Esav was destined to be in charge. However, if the oracle is understood as somewhat more ambiguous, then we can learn not only the story, but also about the way we relate to the Word of ‘א.

The first textual difficulty we are presented with is found in 25:24, “And the days of her term were full; and behold, there were twins in her belly.” The second half of this verse repeats information that we have already received not once, but twice before. Not only did it appear in the oracle in the previous verse, but the verse before that specifically references that she has more than one son within her. Thus this verse presents a redundancy that must be explained. Rav Dovid Kimchi (רד״ק) explains that this verse ought to be understood as “And behold, the twins were born.” This understanding is problematic however, as the verse explicitly mentions that the twins were in her womb, something that Radak’s understanding leaves out. Rav Shemuel Ben Meir (רשב״ם) and Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch understand the verse to be speaking from purely Sarah’s perspective, indicating that she was surprised by this fact. This explanation runs into the problem that Sarah already heard in the prophecy of verse 23 that there are two nations in her womb, and therefore there would be no reason for her to be surprised. However, the answer of R’ Hirsch and Rashbam makes a lot more sense if we simply assume that the prophecy is unclear. When Rivkah goes to inquire of ‘א, this is following the Torah mentioning that she is pregnant with multiple children in verse 22. However, the narrative voice of the Torah speaks from an omniscient, divine perspective, wherein it is already known that Rivkah gives birth to twins in just a few verses[1]. We, as readers, are therefore privileged to also know this, but Rivkah is not. Thus when we read the prophecy in verse 23 that says, “There are two nations in your womb,” we think, “Oh, so each of the children mentioned in verse 22 becomes a nation.” Rivkah, however, has no prior knowledge that she is pregnant with more than one child, and thus she might simply understand the prophecy as, “my child, and his descendants after him, will develop into two nations.” She also might consider both possibilities. But only when the children are born in verse 25, does she discover that the oracle really had been referring to twins currently within her womb.

The second, and perhaps more critical, textual difficulty this approach solves is the question of why Rivkah did not tell Yitzhak about the prophecy. Even if one wanted to argue that this would not have changed his mind about loving Esav, doesn’t he deserve to know that one of his sons has received the divine imprimatur, that ‘א has decreed one to be superior. Moreover, while verse 28 makes it clear exactly why it is Yitzhak loves Esav, a reason is never given for why Rivkah loves Yaakov. It is certainly possible, as Rashbam suggests[2], that the reason she loved him was because he was favored by ‘א (this would imply a certain moral superiority that Rivkah may have favored)[3]. Certainly her actions in chapter 27, where she instructs, encourages, and enables her son Yaakov to deceive his father and steal his older brother’s blessing, would seem to be an attempt to bring to fruition the final line of the oracle, “And the elder shall serve the younger.” However, this all once again assumes a privileged reading of the text, where we know that in the end Yaakov received the blessing of the firstborn, and thus we assume that the phrase “וְרַב יַעֲבֹד צָעִיר” really must be understood as “and the elder will serve the younger.”[4] However, the syntax here is ambiguous. It could just as easily mean “and the elder will enslave the younger.”[5] Depending on how you interpret the word “וְרַב,” it could even mean that the younger will do an incredible amount of labor[6]. Thus Rivkah did not necessarily receive a clear message about which child was favored by ‘א, and she really had nothing concrete with which to approach Yitzhak. For all the text tells us she may have told Yitzhak, and the Torah simply didn’t feel it necessary to say so because no concrete course of action could be based off of the oracle.

This immediately raises the issue of why Rivkah preferred Yaakov to Esav (in contrast to Yitzhak), going so far as to plan and execute his stealing the blessing of the firstborn. As mentioned above, it is often assumed that this is due to the final verse of the prophecy indicating that Yaakov was favored by ‘א and was meant to receive the blessing, but as we have shown the prophecy says no such thing, and thus a new explanation must be found. Lacking any special prophetic insight, Rivkah remains the mother of Yaakov and Esav, and thus can be assumed to have a good understanding of their character[7]. The Torah itself does not tell us much about their character, but the Torah is generally very minimal in its exposition, using a minimum of text or a maximum of characterization. What it does tell us then, however minimal, will likely indicate what it was that Rivkah saw that caused her to favor Yaakov.

Towards the end of the story, Esav swears to kill Yaacov, and Rivkah knows this. However there is no indication of any murderous tendencies in the earlier parts of the story. Going back to the beginning, we are told two things each about Yaakov and Esav, besides for their physical state upon birth (25:25-26). We are told that, as they grew up, Esav knew how to hunt and was a farmer[8], while Yaakov was a wholesome man and a shepherd[9] (25:27). While seemingly minimal, this description actually tells us quite a bit. Firstly, the depiction of one brother as a farmer and one as a shepherd is very important. The dichotomy of the farmer and the shepherd is very common in Tanakh and, while the exact reason for this can be debated, it is very clear in the eyes of the Tanakh that being a farmer is something of a moral failure. Some good examples of this are Kayin and Hevel, where Kayin’s only apparent transgression before murdering his brother is being a farmer (4:2-5), or when Yaakov’s family descends to Egypt and must hide that they are shepherds in this new agricultural country (46:31-47:4). Thus the depiction of Esav is a clear indication of moral inferiority on his part. Since the second part of each brother’s description (“farmer” and “shepherd”) are a pair, it’s worth looking at the first part of each description with an eye to whether or not they are a pair as well. At first glance, this approach would not seem to bear fruit. While Esav is “a person who knows how to hunt,” Yaakov is “wholesome.” We don’t usually think of hunting and wholesomeness as necessarily opposed. However, as Ibn Ezra points out (ad loc.), there is something innately deceitful about hunting, as it involves tricking or forcing an animal into a position of weakness in order for you to kill it. Thus Esav’s knowing how to hunt should more likely be seen as a symbol for his deceitful nature, something that is absolutely opposed to being “wholesome.” As the first part of each description is then paired, this can help us understand why Rivkah loved Yaakov, as opposed to Esav. Verse 25:28 records that Yitzhak loved Esav because he gave Yitzhak meat that he had hunted[10], and that Rivkah loved Yaakov. This last phrase is conspicuously missing a reason like the one provided in the first half of the verse. However, as Yitzhak loved Esav because of the first half of his description, that he hunted, so too Rivkah loved Yaakov because of the first half of his description, because he was wholesome[11]. Thus Rivkah did not cause Yaakov to steal the birthright because the Word of ‘א told her that was proper, but because she understood that one of her sons was worthy and the other was not.

Rivkah was confronted with ‘א’s Word in the form of a prophecy regarding the destiny of her children. It comes to us in the form of the Torah. In terms of understanding the text itself, the Torah is not entirely clear. There are often many possible interpretations for a word, or a verse, or a passage. When we try and understand the relevance that the Torah possesses for us today, these difficulties are multiplied a hundredfold. Interpreting the prophecy she received was a dangerous game for Rivkah; it is perhaps more so for us. As both followers and interpreters of the Torah, how we interpret it bears great meaning for our lives and our practice. Moreover, we often share our interpretations, and to do so with a mistaken interpretation can be catastrophic. Possessing ‘א’s Word is an incredible gift; Interpreting it demands of us incredible responsibility. Rivkah did not simply interpret the prophecy as she saw fit, and we cannot bend the Torah to our needs. If Rivkah had thought the prophecy meant that Esav was meant to dominate Yaakov, she still could not have just acted upon that, as it would have been an immoral interpretation. So too, we cannot interpret the Torah in an immoral manner. We have a responsibility to read it with an eye towards the values of ‘א, Life, and Holiness.

[1] Ibn Ezra, ad loc.

[2] In his comment on verse 23.

[3] However, see Rashbam’s comment on verse 28.

[4] This reading also makes certain assumptions about the meaning of the phrase “will serve.” If we take it as referring to who will receive the blessing of their father, certainly not the literal meaning of the phrase, then it would obviously refer to Esav. If it refers to being submissive, then it might very well refer to Yaakov, who spends his last encounter with Esav referring to Esav as his master and to himself as Esav’s servant (Bereishit 33). If it refers to rulership and dominance, then one has to look beyond the scope of the Torah itself, out into the rest of Tanakh and beyond, and it could be referring to either brother (For more see the end of Radak’s comment on Bereishit 25:23).

[5] Radak 25:23.

[6] Hizkuni 25:23. This interpretation is perhaps odd in light of both the way that the word has been interpreted historically and the fact that the immediate context is speaking about both sons, not just one.However, it is worth pointing out that this explanation might actually make the most sense of all, in light of the lack of the hebrew vowel indicating the demonstrative adjective “the” (as in “the elder”) is suspiciously lacking in the phrase in question.

[7] One could argue against this by pointing out that Yitzhak, as their father, ought to be assumed to have the same amount of insight into their character as Rivkah, and yet he loved Esav. However, the Torah itself indicates that Yitzhak did not understand the morality, or lack thereof, his sons were exhibiting, in saying that Yitzhak had become blind (Bereishit 27:1). A similar expression is found in Sefer Shemuel 3:2, wherein the Kohen HaGadol, Eli, was unaware of the immoral actions that his sons had forced upon the populace. Blindness as a metaphor for a lack of understanding in terms of another action is also found in Shemot 23:8, where it is said that taking a bribe “blinds those who can see.” The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 68:5-7 specifically points to the food that Yitzhak took from Esav as if it were a bribe that he took, that blinded him to Esav’s shortcomings.

[8] For this understanding of the phrase “איש שדה,” see Ibn Ezra and Seforno’s comments ad loc.

[9] For this explanation of the phrase “ישב אהלים,” see Ibn Ezra, Seforno, Hizkuni, and Rashbam ad loc. Also see Bereishit 4:20.

[10] Latching on to the essentially deceitful nature of this characteristic, the midrash understands “כִּי-צַיִד בְּפִיו” not as “because that which Esav hunted was in Yitzhak’s mouth,” but as “for Esav hunted Yitzhak with his mouth,” meaning that Esav would speak before Yitzhak with respect, and thus deceived Yitzhak about his character (Tanhuma Toledot, 8).

[11] Rashbam 25:28.

Parashat Haye Sarah – A Stranger In A Strange Land

גֵּר-וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי

Parashat Haye Sarah tells the three stories that conclude Avraham’s section of Sefer Bereishit, consisting of his last two narratives and the story of his burial. The two final narratives of Avraham’s life, burying his wife and finding a wife for his son, would seem at first glance to be in tension. When buying a plot of land to bury Sarah, Avraham is very precise in following the local protocol and accepted norms of the Hittite community in the area, making his case to and before the public (Bereishit 23). Then, when he sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzhak, his instructions make it clear that he wants nothing to do with the locals, that a Canaanite woman would be completely unacceptable as a wife for Yitzhak. However, both stories are at the end of the day more complex than that, and both express a larger tension inherent in Avraham’s life, and throughout the history of Bnei Yisrael.

Bereishit 23 begins with Sarah’s death and ends with her burial. The verses in between are spent in a very detailed depiction of the process of Avraham buying a plot of land in which to bury Sarah. Avraham first goes to the Children of Het as a community and asks them to speak on his behalf. Only then does Avraham actually speak to Efron, and the whole thing takes place in the presence of the community. The whole thing strongly resembles ancient Near-Eastern contracts, down to the mention of the trees in verse 17[1]. The larger story reads very much like a story about Avraham joining the community. However, looking at the details of Avraham’s discussion with the Hittites gives a somewhat different impression. In verse four, Avraham asks the community if he can purchase “a burial plot” in which to bury Sarah, and they respond by offering him a grave, “from amongst the choicest of their graves.” In his response, Avraham asks the people to intercede with Efron on his behalf, and in doing so he again states that he is looking to purchase not a grave, but a burial plot. This repeated emphasis on buying a full piece of land in which to bury his wife, instead of just burying her among the dead of the Hittites, demonstrates a strong desire to remain separate and distinct. So while he is more than willing to follow the communal customs and protocols in buying the plot of land, the land purchase itself represents a certain degree of reluctance to actually join the community.

Bereishit 24 depicts the journey of Avraham’s servant to Haran to find a wife for Yitzhak. The servant’s journey is started by Avraham giving him detailed instructions, with the emphasis on the fact that the wife must not be from Canaan, going so far as to make him swear to this. “And I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of the earth, that you shalt not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell. But you shalt go to my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife for my son, for Yitzhak” (24:3-4). This would seem to betray a strong desire to remain separate and apart from the Canaanites. But for all that, it is even more important that Yitzhak not be taken out of the land of Canaan. Despite the apparently undesirable nature of the Canaanite society, Avraham wants to make sure that his descendants remain in the midst of it. They came from a different land to a place where the society runs according to norms they could never accept[2]. They are supposed to come to the society as strangers, and then dwell there, despite the fact that it is strange to them.

The idea of being a stranger in a strange land is a trend for the next few generations of Israelite leadership. Yaakov spends 22 years growing and developing his family in the house of Lavan. Yosef is sold into slavery in Egypt where he becomes a leader of the entire society. Perhaps the ultimate manifestation of this is Moshe, who is raised in the Egyptian royal household, while  knowing that he is an Israelite (Shemot 2:8, 4:14), then he is exiled to Midian, where they identify him as an Egyptian (Shemot 2:19), and finally he returns to Egypt, to the house of Paroah, as the leader of soon-to-be liberated slaves. He is at all points in his life a stranger, as emphasized by the fact that he names his first son Gershom (גרשם), literally meaning “stranger there,” due to his having “been a stranger in a strange land” (Shemot 2:22). The only person whose sense of estrangement might be comparable is Rivkah. When she is taken from her family, from the land of her birth, she becomes a part of Avraham’s family, and must take up the family legacy of being part of a community they cannot fully accept. However, her estrangement starts much earlier. When the Torah introduces Rivkah, she is depicted as the very essence of altruistic dedication to the service of others. She spends hours filling up troughs full of water for the camels of a stranger who merely asked for a sip to drink (Bereishit 24:17-19). When he asks for a place to sleep, she offers him food for his camels as well (24:23-25). Her family, however, is only moved by the riches of the stranger (24:30-31), and seems to be totally self-serving, revealing that, growing up, Rivkah would have been a stranger in her own household. This would have made her perfect to marry Yitzhak, who was born in the Canaanite community, and thus would not possess the same degree of natural tension.

The question that then must be answered is, why is this tension important, or even at all desirable? The sensation of alienation Avraham and his family must have experienced living in Canaanite society must have been incredible, and not entirely pleasant. However, it has an important function. Avraham’s family was meant to be involved in the Canaanite society. Avraham helps fight a war (Bereishit 14) and he prays for the Sedom and the surrounding cities (Bereishit 18:16-33), despite their dubious moral character (Bereishit 13:13). Both Avraham and Yikzchak have repeated dealings with King Avimelekh of Gerar (Bereishit 20, 21:22-34). However, they are also a unique entity unto themselves, ‘א’s only covenantal partners in a land of people whose actions ‘א cannot tolerate (Bereishit 15:16). To remain unique is to be alienated. Losing this sense of alienation comes at the price of losing what makes one unique. This is all the more true in modern society, where we as jews are not in total opposition to society’s values. Much of modernity is incredibly valuable and important, and therefore it is that much harder to feel that we should be different, that we must remain separate. But if we as Jews do have something valuable to contribute to society, and we certainly do, letting go of that is a loss not just for us, but for society as a whole. While the pull of unity is great, it often comes at the price of the unique gifts of the individual, and in this it must be resisted. What we have to give is what makes us unique, and thus the way to stay unique is to truly believe in what we have to give. We must embrace what makes us different, not because we reject society, but because otherwise we would have cannot give to society. Embracing what makes us different not only makes us better, but betters society as well.

[1] Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis.

[2] The biblical picture of the Canaanites is one of absolute depravity, as per Bereishit 15:16, Vayikra 18:3, etc.

Parashat Vayera – The Covenantal Partner and The Individual

וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְ׳הוָה

Parashat Vayera begins with ‘א’s appearing to Avraham as three men[1] in the Terebinths of Mamrei in order to give over the information that Sarah will give birth to a son, Yitzhak. The problem this immediately raises is that the visitation in chapter 18 follows close on the heels of the revelation in chapter 17, the main theme of which was the promise of Yitzhak’s birth. If Avraham has already been informed that Yitzhak is going to be born, then why does ‘א need to come announce it a second time? However, while the two passages share many similarities and are, to some degree, dependent upon each other, they also differ in many distinct ways, and close analysis of these differences shows that each of the passages expresses a very different perspective on the birth of Yitzhak and its meaning, both for ‘א and for Avraham.

The differences between Bereishit 17 and Bereishit 18 begin almost immediately[2]. Bereishit 17 contains the mitsvah of Brit Milah, circumcision (17:9-14), that is the sign of the covenant between ‘א and Bnei Yisrael, going all the way back to Avraham, a command that appears nowhere else in the Torah. It also includes the discussion of the covenant, and the fact that Yitzhak, not Yishmael, will be Avraham’s successor in the covenant (17:19-20), none of which is mentioned in Bereishit 18. The message of Yitzhak’s birth is given with a focus specifically on Avraham in chapter 17 (17:16, 19), even though Sarah will be the one pregnant, while in chapter 18 it is said specifically that Sarah will have a son (18:10). At no point in chapter 17 are we told the setting of the prophecy, while in chapter 18 a great deal is made of the fact that it is occurring at the tent, which is mentioned five times. To top it off, the chapters use different names for ‘א throughout, a strong differentiator. The passages are also clearly dependent on each other, in that Avraham is not referred to by name in chapter 18 until verse 6. Up to that point he is simply referred to by the pronoun “him” and it is only because this passage follows chapter 17 that we know who is being referred to[3]. But for the fact that the two passages share the pronouncement of the birth of Yitzhak, they would be two separate texts dealing with very separate stories.

Despite that, the two passages share many similarities. After briefly mentioning Avram’s age, the prophecy in chapter 17 begins with ‘א appears to Avram (17:1), using exactly the same phrase found at the beginning the next chapter. Bereishit 17:17 mentions that Avraham laughed, just as Sarah does in Bereishit 18:12-15. In both passages Avraham is predicted to give birth to great nations (17:16, 18:18). The two chapters seem in many ways to be telling the same story, and therefore we must answer why the same story is repeated twice in the Torah, one after the other.

Each of these stories forms the context for the announcing of Yitzhak’s birth, and there are certain hallmarks of that story, such as the disbelief of an elderly parent-to-be, that occur in each passage. But each of these stories forms a very different context and therefore lends to the birth of Yitzhak a very different significance.

In Bereishit 17, the announcement of the birth is in context of the covenant between ‘א and Avraham. It is for this reason that it includes the discussion of the covenant and the command for its sign, the Brit Milah. Yitzhak is not primarily Avraham and Sarah’s son but ‘א’s next covenantal partner (as opposed to Yishmael), who happens to be born to Avraham and Sarah. This is also why there is an emphasis on Yitzchak being born to Avraham, as opposed to Sarah, for Avraham is ‘א’s current covenantal partner. Thus even Avraham’s place in the story is subordinate to the focus on the covenant and ‘א’s greater plan, rather than being about Avraham himself.

In Bereishit 18, the focus is on Sarah and Avraham as individuals, as an elderly barren couple instead of as the Bearers of the Covenant. Thus, the emphasis is on Sarah having a child at least as much as on Avraham, which fits with the way the emphasis is on Sarah being barren in Bereishit 11:30, as opposed to Avraham. Moreover, where in Bereishit 17 the need for a covenantal partner to succeed Avraham would require Yitzhak’s birth, regardless of Avraham and Sarah’s personal merit, Bereishit 18 puts a strong emphasis on their personal merit, emphasizing the way Avraham rushed to greet the guests (18:2), the way both Sarah and Avraham helped prepare food for the guests (18:4-8), and the fact that Avraham would teach his descendant to follow ‘א’s path, to be righteous and just (18:19). Bereishit 18 depicts the birth of Yitzhak as the granting of a child to a couple who had long been childless and who, both because of who they were and who they would teach him to be, could not be more deserving.

‘א acts on the level of his great historical purposes, where sometimes the personal merit of individuals is ignored for the good of ‘א’s plan. But he also interacts on the subtle, individual, stage, where He exists in relation to individuals, and their merit is the deciding factor. These two approaches each surface at various times throughout Tanakh. The great teshuvah movement of King Yoshiyahu ends tragically without ‘א relenting from his decree, as Yoshiyahu was told would be the case by the prophetess Huldah (Melakhim II 22). By contrast, in Yehezkal 18 it is repeatedly stated that all that matters is a person’s personal merit, the things they have done right and the things they have done wrong. These two approaches are manifest in Bereishit 17 and 18, respectively. Bereishit 17 is all about the fact that ‘א has a plan that involves Avraham and his successor, Yitzhak. Bereishit 18 is all about the fact that Sarah and Avraham personally merit a child.

This differentiation is emphasized through the way that the two chapters use different names for ‘א. Bereishit 17 refers to ‘א as Elokim, the name associated with divine justice, with ‘א’s orderly plan for creation, while Bereishit 18 refers to ‘א as YHVH, the name associated with divine compassion, with ‘א’s intimate involvement with His world.

It is important for us to understand these two ways in which ‘א interacts with the world, for the sake of understanding ‘א and understanding History. But it is more important for the sake of our understanding our place in History and the significance of our own actions. Bereishit 17 asks us to understand that we are players on the historical stage, that we participate in ‘א’s plan and further His goals. On this level, it is not our personal merit that makes us significant, but the fact we are ‘א’s chosen covenantal partners, and the incredible responsibility this asks us to bear. Simultaneously, we are individuals who are asked to be kind and gracious, piously dedicated and personally responsible. Existing on the world stage does not exempt us from our local responsibilities. Participation in the historical covenant does not mean that we can be rude to the man on the street; in fact, quite the opposite. The way justice and righteousness play out on the personal stage bear great significance for the realization of ‘א’s historical goals (Bereishit 18:19).

[1] The most likely explanation of the nature of the appearance (18:1) seems to be that it is constituted by the visit of the angels. They are constantly referred to as men (18:2, 16, 22, etc.), despite being angels (19:1), as this is how they appeared to Avraham. He only became aware that they were not ordinary men when the primary angel spoke as ‘א (18:13). Such is the explanation of the Rashbam. For more, see R’ Elchanan Samet’s explanation here.

[2] I owe much of the differentiation between the two passages to R’ Yonatan Grossman’s essay “News of the Birth of Yitzchak.”

[3] This dependence is picked up the midrash, quoted by Rashi on 18:1, that says ‘א was visiting Avraham when he was sick after the circumcision as the mitsvah of Bikkur Holim, Visiting the Sick. In theory, the visitation by the angels could have come at any time, it did not need to be immediately after the circumcision, but the language highlights the fact that the two passages are in fact highly connected.