Thursday, November 5, 2009

Parashat Vayera - B'resheet (Genesis) 18-22

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Vayera - B'resheet (Genesis) 18 - 22

Vayera”, which is translated "He appeared", actually means "and he showed himself", and even more literally: “and he caused himself to be seen”. The word stems from the root r.a.h. (resh, alef, hey), meaning to "see". Some of its other derivatives are: "seen, to show, to be seen, and sight." Certainly, "seeing" plays a major role in this Parasha. Yes, YHVH does appear before Avraham - but it seems that it is incumbent upon the latter to do the ‘seeing’. Thus, according to18: 2, "seeing the three men, he sees….” The peculiar wording of the text indicates that Avraham has to look beyond what meets his eye. Accordingly, verses 1 and 2 state that “YHVH appeared to him… and he lifted up his eyes and saw… three men!"

The principle promulgated by Yeshua in Matthew 25:40, namely, "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me," is apparent throughout this chapter. Avraham appears to be keenly aware of the fact that by entertaining strangers, one could, unknowingly (or knowingly), be entertaining (at the very least), angels… (Ref. Hebrew 13:2). These strangers, whether one of them is or is not YHVH himself, are greeted by their host, in word and deed, with the homage due the King of kings.

This passage contains significant interchanges between single person and plural persons*. In verse 3, Avraham addresses the three men whom he had just seen, calling them "Adonai" (“Lords”) and says: “…If now I have found favor in your [single person] sight, pass not away from your servant". Verses 4,5,8 and 9 all employ the second person plural. But in verse 10, where the promise is pronounced of the son who is to be born to Sarah within the year, there is a switch to the single person again (“and he said I will return..” italics added). In verses 13 and 14 the name YHVH is actually mentioned as the One addressing Avraham (relating to Sarah’s response), while in 16 the “men rise up” and get ready to leave. Starting with verse 17 the scene changes altogether. In the passage which commences here (describing Avraham's intercession on behalf of the cities of Sdom and Amora - Gomorrah), YHVH and the men, who until now seemed to represent Him, are referred to as totally separate entities: “And the men turned their faces away from there, and went toward Sodom. But Abraham still stood before YHVH” (v. 22). The unclear distinction between the three persons and YHVH leaves us baffled as to ‘who is who’ here, and raises the question whether there is a hidden message in this unusual and enigmatic text formulation. Later on, when Lot and the members of his family are being led out of Sdom by the messengers-visitors, there is a similar lack of distinction between YHVH and His ‘agents’ (ref. 19:16-21).* Thus, although this Parasha is characterized by ‘seeing’, the reader’s vision is more often than not quite impaired.

Avraham’s guests, however, stand and view Sdom at a distance, while the Elohim who "showed Himself" to Avraham determines (v. 17) not to (literally) "cover" His plans from His servant, and to inform him what it is that He was about to do (to Sdom and Amora). YHVH then declares that He himself aims to "come down and see if they had done according to the outcry that had come" to Him (18:21 italics added). In this instance, the "seeing" is a symbolic "inspection", or a declaration of intention that will obviously be followed by action on YHVH’s part.

Following Avraham's bargaining scene with YHVH, we meet his nephew Lot as he is sitting in the evening by the gate of Sdom (whereas his uncle had been sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of day). Now it is his turn to "see" (19:1). Lot greets the two messengers (quite likely of the same three-men-party that had visited his uncle) by rising up and bowing down, just as his relative had done. He too offers to have his guests' feet washed, and is anxious to supply them with refreshments. As it is evening time, Lot also offers them a place for the night, which they are very reluctant to accept (or are they simply testing him?), and do so only after much imploring on the part of their host. The meal served by Avraham under the tree was far more peaceful than the feast at Lot's house in the town of Sdom. No sooner are they done, and the town's evil men surround the house. The messengers, however, quickly and supernaturally blind the would-be-assailants (ref. 19:1). Next, Lot tries to talk his family into leaving town, but his sons-in-law perceive it to be a joke ("laughing", is the word in Hebrew). This laughter, however, is only short lived… as in verse 25 YHVH overthrows the two cities, and in verse 28 Avraham is watching (literally “seeing” - “vayar” again of our root r.a.h) “the smoke of the country”.

Laughter was also part of the scene with Avraham and his guests (referred to above). The three visitors came in order to reaffirm, once again, the promise of a son. Sarah, who overheard this conversation, laughed in her tent and later denied it (18:12-15). What’s more, this is not the last time that she is seen laughing After giving birth, exactly within the year as YHVH had declared, Sarah says, "Elohim has made me laugh, and everyone who hears of it will laugh at me" (21:6 italics added). “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… mocking (the word is again “laughing”, v. 9, italics added).” "Seeing" this “laughter” results in the banishment of Hagar and her son Yishmael (Ishmael). The banished handmaiden wanders in the wilderness by Beer Sheva, and when her drinking water is used up she places her son under a shrub and exclaims: ”Let me not see the death of the boy. And she … lifted up her voice and cried" (ve.16 italics added). “And God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave drink to the boy” (v. 19 italics added).

Hagar's eyes are opened in the wilderness of Beer Sheva. The episode that follows expounds on the meaning of the named of that town’s name (21:22 – 34). Beer Sheva is literally "the well of seven". The words “adjure, charge and oath” share the same root (sh.v.a, shin, bet/vet, ayin). “Satisfaction, or to have had enough” (especially regarding food), is “sovah” being of the same root (although the letter “shin” is modified to a “sin”). The usage of the number seven is often indicative of “fullness” and “completeness”, and as such it is also a solemn promise, or an oath that could be guaranteed simply by repeating it seven times (or by using multiplications of seven). The connection between these two words ("seven" and "oath") is well illustrated here in our story, namely in Avraham and Avimelech's settlement (21:22 - 34). Avraham places seven (“sheva”) ewe lambs in front of Avimlelech, as a witness to the fact that he had dug a well that was now under dispute. Following that action "he called that place Beer Sheva, because there the two of them took an oath (sh'vu'ah)". In Matthew 18:21, we see Peter proclaiming that the act of forgiving up to seven times is sufficient. Yeshua, of course, goes beyond that, but He too stays within the ‘realm of seven’, saying…"up to seventy times seven.” Truly, “…The words of YHVH are pure words; as silver… refined seventy times" (Ps. 12:6). The figure ‘seventy’ tells us that His words promise to guarantee full satisfaction. "…On the day when YHVH binds up the fracture of His people and heals the bruise He has inflicted… the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days" (Is. 30:26b, 26a). Again, the guarantee of fullness in the form of "sevens" renders it like an oath. The sunrise and sunset dictate the formation of any given day, just as the sun and the moon control the length of the months and seasons of the Biblical year. The seven-day week, however, seems to be quite arbitrary - but is it? Elohim chose to create the world in six days and then to add one more at the end, which He set apart for rest, remembrance and declaration. The sanctification of the seventh day, the commemoration of the number "seven" (in naming the “week” “shavu’a”), the fullness and completeness of what Elohim has accomplished, and its guaranteed fulfillment, are all innately expressed in the Hebrew language by the root sh/s.v.a: "In Your presence there is fullness ("sova") of joy; I will be satisfied (“es'be'ah”) with Your likeness when I awake" (Ps. 16:11 & 17:15).

The next scene is the famous "binding of Yitzchak (Isaac)", known in Hebrew as “Akedat Yitzchak”. After a three-day journey with Yitzchak and two of his servants “…Avraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar…” (22:4 italics added). Responding to his son's question, as to the whereabouts of the lamb for the sacrifice, Avraham says…"Elohim will see for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (v.7 literal translation, italics added). YHVH does indeed "see" (translated as “provide”) a substitute for Yitzchak in the form of a ram… "And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and behold, a ram was caught in the thicket by his horns. And Abraham called the name of the place ‘YHVH Yir'eh - will see’ - as it is said to this day - 'it shall be seen on the mountain of YHVH'" (v.13-14 emphasis added).

As it is in the beginning, so it is at the end of the Parasha - YHVH reveals Himself. In the opening verses Avraham “sees” Him using his 'inner eyes' and discernment, even when looking upon the three men. YHVH is also seen as the One who reveals His "secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7) before resorting to judge Sdom and Amora, though not before doing His own "seeing" of the state of affairs there. Further, His messengers' aura of light impairs the vision of the spiritually blind. Avimelech sees YHVH in a dream whic prevents him from sinning with Sarah. The latter’s “seeing” causes her to send Hagar and Yishamael away, but their needs are seen to by YHVH in the wilderness. And finally, He is the One who “sees” (present tense) for Himself the sacrificial Lamb provided by Him for all time.

Earlier we noticed that Avraham was sitting at the tent door “in the heat of the day” (18:1), while Lot was sitting at the gate of the city of Sdom “in the evening” (19:1). But in the Parasha as a whole, it is the expression “early in the morning” that keeps reoccurring. In three out of four times it relates to Avraham (19:27; 21:14; 22:3), and one time to Avimelech (20:8). “And he rose early” is, each time, “va’yashkem” of the root (shin, kaf/chaf, meme) which is also applied to the word “shoulder”. This is illustrated very graphically in 21:14: “And Abraham rose up early - “va-yashkem” - in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder -”shichma” - (italics added). The connection of those two identical terms is thought to be imbedded in the very reason for rising early, which is to put one’s shoulders to work.

In 19:37 and 38 we learn of the origin of the Moabites and the Amonites. The fact that they are the product of an incestuous relationship is expressed by the name of the oldest. “Mo’av” stems from “m’av”, meaning “from a father”, as the boy had been begotten by his mother’s father (his own grandfather). The second boy’s mother names him “Ben Ami” (Ammon), meaning “son of my people”, which is also a reference to the close family tie. Lot’s daughters’ conduct is not surprising, as earlier on, when the men of Sdom demanded that he hand over his guests to them, their father attempted to offer these two daughters in place of the visitors (ref. 19:4-8).

* In all these cases this is much more pronounced in the Hebrew original than in the translations, one reason being that in English there is no distinction between you singular and plural.