Parsha Potpourri: Parshas Vayeira


Vayisa einav vayar v’hinei shlosha anashim nitzavim alav vayar vayaratz likrasam mi’pesach ha’ohel vayishtachu artzah (18:2)

Avrohom excelled in the mitzvah of hosting guests. Three days after he had circumcised himself at the age of 99, Hashem didn’t want Avrohom to burden himself with caring for guests. He brought a heat wave to deter all travelers on that day. Still, the weak Avrohom’s greatest concern was that the unusually hot weather would deny him the merit of welcoming guests. Avrohom decided to sit at the entrance of his tent in the hopes that he might spy a stray traveler.

When Hashem saw Avrohom’s suffering over the lack of guests, He sent three angels in the guise of people. Rejoicing at this improbable turn of events, the elderly and weak Avrohom ran to personally invite them to his home to serve them, where he proceeded to serve them a lavish and abundant feast.

The Medrash records that initially, Avrohom sent his trusted servant Eliezer outside to search for guests, but he returned to report that he was unable to find any. Avrohom responded by commenting that servants cannot be trusted. In other words, he felt that Eliezer hadn’t tried hard enough and exhausted all of the possibilities, and as proof, Avrohom went outside personally and returned with three guests.

This Medrash is difficult to understand. Eliezer was indeed Avrohom’s trusted and reliable servant. He knew how valuable the mitzvah of hosting guests was to his master, and when he went outside to look for guests, he certainly looked in every possible location, but he was unsuccessful because, unbeknownst to him, Hashem had taken out the hot sun to keep the guests away from the ailing Avrohom. What was Avrohom’s complaint against Eliezer, and what more could Eliezer realistically have done to locate guests?

Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein recounts that when he was growing up in Yerushalayim, he and a group of other boys studied together with a private teacher. At one point, they were studying tractate Shabbos during World War 2. At that time, it was virtually impossible to find complete Talmudic sets, and only the Rav of his neighborhood possessed an entire set of the Talmud, which was shared by everybody.

The teacher requested each of the boys to bring his own Gemora to their class, but every boy returned to say that he had searched throughout the entire neighborhood and was unable to locate an available Gemora, as in fact there weren’t any to be found. However, there was one boy who returned successfully with his own copy.

To the present day, Rav Zilberstein has no idea where the boy found it, but he explains that he was successful because he wanted more than any of the others to locate a Gemora. Because he desired the Gemora with his entire being, Hashem helped him to locate one where everybody else had failed. Not surprisingly, that boy grew up to become a well-known disseminator of Torah.

Similarly, Rav Zilberstein explains that although Eliezer indeed tried his utmost to locate guests, his lack of success emanated not from laziness or a half-hearted effort, but from a lack of desire. Avrohom understood that if Eliezer shared his burning desire to find guests, he would have been successful, as Avrohom subsequently was. Although the circumstances in which we find ourselves are often beyond are control, when we truly want something badly enough and exert ourselves to the fullest, Hashem often miraculously sends us the results for which we yearn

Vatomer l’Avrohom gareish ha’ama hazos v’es b’na ki lo yirash ben ha’ama hazos im b’ni im Yitzchok (21:10)

The Medrash Tanchuma (Chayei Sorah 4) teaches that the chapter in Mishlei known as “Aishes Chayil” was authored long before Shlomo HaMelech was born. Upon the death of his beloved wife Sorah, Avrohom eulogized her (23:2) and composed this beautiful expression of his appreciation for his woman of valor. The Medrash explains how each line was a unique expression of praise for an event which occurred in Sorah’s life. While many of the connections are self-evident, the Medrash curiously teaches that “darsha tzemer u’pishtim” – she seeks out wool and linen – is illustrated by Sorah’s forceful demand in our verse that Avrohom separate between Yitzchok and Yishmael. What could be the connection between looking for weaving materials and insisting that the wicked Yishmael be driven out of her house?

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik brilliantly elucidates the intent of the Medrash. Rashi writes (21:9) that Sorah insisted on sending Yishmael away only after seeing him engaged in idolatry, forbidden relations, and murder. She feared that he represented a negative spiritual influence on Yitzchok, and she was also afraid that he may kill Yitzchok to guarantee his inheritance. Nevertheless, how was Avrohom permitted to send away Yishmael, thereby denying him of his rightful inheritance as the first-born?

On a simple level, we may answer that Avrohom was allowed to do so because Hashem explicitly commanded him (21:12) not to worry about Yishmael and to follow Sorah’s instructions to send him away. Although Yishmael was lawfully considered Avrohom’s first-born, this concern should be outweighed by an explicit command from Hashem.

However, the Gemora in Yoma (28b) teaches that Avrohom observed all of the laws of the Torah. If so, he had a dilemma, as the Torah rules (Devorim 21:15-17) that if a man has two wives and the wife whom he hates bears his first child, he is forbidden to transfer the right of the firstborn to a son who is born subsequently from the wife whom he loves. How was Avrohom to decide what to do when confronted with seemingly conflicting obligations: a positive commandment to listen to Sorah and to send away Yishmael, thereby depriving him of his rightful inheritance, and a negative prohibition forbidding him to do so?

There is a Talmudic principle that “asei doche lo sa’aseh” – when the performance of a positive commandment comes into conflict with observing a negative one, a person should nevertheless fulfill the positive obligation. The Gemora in Yevamos (4b) seeks a source for this rule and concludes that the Torah juxtaposes (Devorim 22:11-12) the prohibition against wearing a garment which contains shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen – tzemer u’pishtim) to the commandment to wear tzitzis to teach this principle.

With this introduction, the Medrash becomes perfectly understandable. Avrohom was torn between obeying Hashem’s positive commandment to listen to Sorah and send Yishmael away and refraining from doing so due to the Torah prohibition against transferring the inheritance of the first-born to a favorite child. He resolved his dilemma by “seeking out” the rule taught by the Torah’s use of wool and linen, from which we derive that a positive commandment should be performed even at the expense of a negative one, and he concluded that he should follow Sorah’s instructions to separate between Yitzchok and Yishmael by banishing Yishmael from the house.

Answers to the weekly Points to Ponder are now available!
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Parsha Points to Ponder (and sources which discuss them):

1)     Rashi writes (18:1) that Hashem came to visit the weak Avrohom on the third day after his circumcision. Must the mitzvah of visiting the sick be performed in person, or may it also be fulfilled by calling the sick person on the phone? (Shu”t Igros Moshe Yoreh Deah 1:223, Shu”t Minchas Yitzchok 2:84, Shu”t Be’er Moshe 2:104-105, Shearim Metzuyanim B’Halacha 193:1)

2)     Avrohom invited his guests (18:5) to join him “v’sa’adu libchem” – and sustain yourselves. Rashi explains that he said “libchem” instead of “l’vavchem” to hint to the fact that angels only have one inclination, the yetzer tov (good inclination). Why did Avrohom speak to them as if they were angels when at that point they hadn’t yet revealed their true identities, and he assumed them to be Arab travelers whom he suspected of idolatry (Rashi 18:4)? (Rabbeinu Bechaye, Gur Aryeh)

3)     Rashi writes (18:9) that the angels asked Avrohom where Sorah was in order to send her the “Kos Shel Beracha” – cup of wine which was used for reciting Birkas HaMazon (Grace after Meals). Why did they recite the Grace after Meals when Rashi writes (18:8) that the bread wasn’t served because it became impure when Sorah touched it? (Maharil Diskin, Derech Sicha, M’rafsin Igri)

4)     Rashi writes (19:31) that Lot’s daughters assumed that the entire world had been destroyed, leaving no man with whom they could have children except their father Lot. How could they think that nobody was left alive when they had fled to the city of Tzo’ar, whose inhabitants were spared as per Lot’s request to the angel (19:18-23)? (Tosefos Rid, Paneiach Raza, P’nei Dovid)

  © 2011 by Oizer Alport.