Genesis   18:1-22:24  Notes Lesson 4
Torah Portion  Vayeira 


There are three pillars of experience with God in this portion that are among the most powerful and profound in sacred literature. The narrative flows in fascinating directions, but it will be upon these three encounters that we will focus our attention. As we will see, they go to the exceptional Divine interest in our showing loving kindness to others, being deeply committed to justice and righteousness in the world, and developing and living a deep and right faith in our God. 

So, are you ready for today's journey?

I. The portion begins with the word, Vayera. God appears to (was seen by)  Abraham. This portion is a lot about people who see or don't see God. Let's think about what it means that God appears/is seen.  Read 18:1-5. 

A. First thing after the fact of God's appearance is  we read that 3 men are standing there. Who are these 3 men? (Angels? [19:1 suggests angels]. A mirage on a hot day? A vision? Human visitors? Is God one of the 3? Or, beautifully, does Abraham turn from God to be attentive to the 3 visitors (and is expected to!)? Or, even more beautifully, is it more simply that God appears (vayira) WHEN we look (vayaruh) to the needs of our fellows?

One rabbinic story has it that three angels disguised as wayfarers accompanied God to visit Abraham - Michael to announce Isaac's birth, Raphael to help heal or comfort Abraham, and Gabriel to destroy Sodom.  

B. Not knowing much about them, what's the first thing Abraham does, and what's its significance? (He rushed to greet them, bowed, begged them not to leave, offered them water and bread, and rest (later offering meat, too, and more). Fine picture of hospitality and kindness  on his part. Newly covenanted, we love our fellows!  To live the life of faith is to see the trace of God in the face of the stranger. (Sacks). We honor God best by honoring His image, humankind. 

Was he, also, hoping for comfort, a message? When we treat visitors as respected guests, they may also have special messages, perhaps only for us. Is this what it means that God has appeared?

What's the purpose of their visit?  Perhaps their coming to "visit the sick," since, by tradition, this was the third day after his circumcision. A sign of God's affirmation, maybe in wake of the circumcision. They also come with news about Sarah's having a child and saving of Lot. 

What's the relationship of all these things?

C. Read 18:10-15

They give him news that Sarah will bear their child (this would fulfill God's promise and this visit follows the circumcision [from which Abraham is likely now recovering]). Sarah "laughs" (as did Abraham before) at the thought of bearing a child at such advanced age. God challenges Abraham on the laughter as if it had the effect of questioning God's capacity and promise. Sarah dissembled and denied she laughed, but he said she did. 

What's going on here? Is Sarah disrespectful or just earthy, honest, impulsive, dubious about the visitors (not necessarily God)? Or is she laughing because it suggests a restoration of marital relations for the old couple? Perhaps it's just that she's happy. 

Now, look at 17:17. Why was laughter from Abraham earlier ok? 

It's indeed possible Sarah did not know they were angels of God and did not even see them. Indeed it's possible Abraham never told her about God's earlier revelation. Thus, not knowing, she may have laughed at herself in derision. 

(Ramban: Joyous laughter typically in Hebrew originates in the mouth, but laughter in the heart is not spoken of as joyous.)                                                    

So, it could be said that she wasn't at all denying God's power. She denied laughter because she feared her reaction may not have expressed praise, thanksgiving, joy. She further didn't respond out of trepidation when she finally realized a prophecy had indeed been revealed to Abraham.  

Now this is cool: listen to the Hebrew words for laughter. In 17:17, when Abraham laughed - v'yitchak; in 18:12, when Sarah laughed in herself - v'titzchak; in 18:13, when God asks about Sarah's laughter - tzachakah; and in 18:15, and he said you did laugh - tzachakta. 

Isaac!!  (Genesis 21:3) Sarah says in 21:6 after Isaac's birth: "God has brought me laughter; everyone who hears will laugh with me."

So, what are we to make about the matter of  laughter in all this? Joyous? Nervous? Fearful? Deceptive? Doubtful? Happy? Relishing a miracle? Some? All?

II. Read 18:16-23. As to Sodom, God is pondering its destruction for pervasive evil, and "God pauses in front of Abraham, and Abraham came forward, and said, 'would you stamp out the innocent with the guilty?'" 18:22-24. (Or did Abraham pause in front of God?)

What if 50 are innocent, Abraham asks? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10?

Some say this is Abraham challenging God. Conventionally, this story is presented as the argument with Heaven for the sake of Heaven. Maybe. Clearly, the motion with the messengers is in the direction of destruction. But I'm not sure it's finally set. 

Argue with me if you like.  But I want to stray from convention. Let me start by asking you: where does it say God explicitly planned to destroy Sodom? 

(We know He worries about telling Abraham what he's planning. (17). But, given the mission He has in mind for Abraham, God must confront Abraham with the matter. Rather than saying destruction is a fait accompli, God says in 21 that He will go down to see if they have done according to the cry and, if so, destruction, but, if not, "I wish to know." 

As Rashi says, this teaches that judges are not in capital cases to decide without carefully looking into the matter. Isn't it into this opening that Abraham makes his appeal?! 

Was it Abraham's appeal for mercy and justice, in part, what God was looking for in his inquiry? As Ramban says, "Now if it is possible in keeping with righteousness and justice to free the cities from destruction, he will pray before me to let them go, and it will be well and good."

For Abraham to say, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (25), this is what God wants from Abraham, and us. God wants us to be agents for justice, righteousness, and loving kindness.  This is the major advance beyond Noah and all who precede Abraham. This takes this journey to a very high place.)

III. We won't stop long at these "pictures." but I do want to point out that in the spirit of appearance and being seen - 1) the fact that God appears to Abimelech in a dream to caution him about not violating Sarah (20:3-7), and 2) God opens Hagar's eyes to see a well of water to sustain her child. For all of us - God enables us to see life-sustaining ways and means in our lives. 

Again, not to stop long on them, I do want to point out some elements of the story that raise questions worth pondering: could the well Hagar sees be the source of spiritual water as well as physical? She's headed to Gerar; Abraham is headed to nearby Beersheba, where he makes a fair deal with Abimelech. I'm not suggesting they would ever again be together. 

But where is Sarah? Do we ever see or hear of Sarah again? Are there consequences within the family over the eviction of Hagar/Ishmael (recall 21:11 - this was very grievous in Abraham's sight on account of his son)? And, as we discuss the Akeda in a moment, are there consequences to the family of those decisions and actions?

Let's hold on these questions until we spend some time on the Akeda. 

IV. Finally, we come to one of the most challenging and perplexing pieces of text in the whole Bible - the Akeda, the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Let's read it. 22:1-19. 

A. This is a test? Of what? I want to pose a variety of questions to get you engaged in the best explanation you can muster. 

(Abraham's readiness to obey? Was this intended to prove Abraham's fear of God was strong enough to have not withheld his son? Is this heeding the voice of God versus the call of conscience? How could God intend the killing by Abraham of the child through whom God promised a glorious destiny? This charge seems a horrible contradiction of what just happened, really frightening indeed. Surely, a nightmare physically as well a mighty spiritual ordeal. 

By the way, why does Abraham not contest, as he did in the case of Sodom, and instead seems to go through the actions, silent? 

On what basis does Abraham believe and say to the servants that he and the boy will both go up, worship, and return?

What must Abraham been thinking: would God provide another child? Would God break His own covenant, and, if so, what example would that be for Abraham as well as the world? If Abraham violated God's command, what would be left? In a way, we are boxed into faith. It may have been sufficient that God put him on the path, wrestling with the challenge and developing a sort of unswerving faith. In other words, there's sometimes simply a mystery to the loss or sacrifice that God asks or expects in our lives, and we can but continue on.  

B. But here's another angle. Note the name of the spot of the offering of the ram: Adonai-yireh, on the mount of the Lord is vision, God watches over me. (back to the idea of seeing). This drives us to a very important discovery! The God Who commands Abraham to take his son is Elohim - the earlier notion of God grounded in the plural, the more distant, the more commanding vision of the Divine. And the God whose angel stays Abraham's hand, commonly translated as the Lord, is Adonai, the intimate, caring, personal God. 

Recall all the many sacrifice stories from the culture from which Abraham (and Judaism) emerged. Is it possible that in his world  Abraham felt called to maintain confidence (faith) through this sort of sacrifice in which all appeared lost only to find that Adonai affirms the faith but stays not only the hand but the old practice? Faith, yes. And, sacrifice, yes, even with some remnants of first fruits, but never again in the form of human sacrifice.  

C. The story concludes with a recitation of the blessing, perhaps in an even more powerful form  than before. But note who goes where? Where does Abraham go? Where is Isaac? Where is Sarah? What do you make of that? This story does not wrap with a pretty bow on the top. It leaves deep wounds as well. 

Yet, on a redemptive note, the power of which, we do not yet fully appreciate, read 22:23. We will pay a lot of attention to this remarkable woman, Rebecca,  in coming weeks. 


God appears and is seen, and Abraham looks up and sees. Vayera

In portraying this appearance, being seen, and seen between Abraham and God, this portion magnificently sets out in an amazing narrative three fundamental pillars of man's relationship with God - loving kindness (with the strangers), justice and righteousness (in the response to God over the indictment of Sodom), and the demands and sacrifices of faith (in the Akeda).

Torah Portion  Vayeira           Genesis   18:1-22:24  

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