Vayera: And the
Bereshit 18, 1-22,
I - The peshat, the literal meaning of the text
Mitzvot in the parasha
Method of study
Demonstration of the method of study.
II - Torah Or
The akeda as interpreted by the Shla
Questions on moral conduct posed by the Shla.
I. The peshat
the literal meaning of the text
in the Parasha
The parasha does not contain any of the 613 mitzvot.
The Shla, however, considers the obligation to give hospitality
to strangers a mitzva and indeed it is a subdivision of
the 611th mitzva (vehalakhta biderakhav, "you will
walk in the ways of Hashem," Devarim 28, 9), as well
as a subdivision of the injunction to walk according to
Hashem our God (Devarim 13, 5), as is written in the Semag
(Great book of Mitzvot).
In Tractate Sotah, page 14 a, Ribbi Hama ben Hanina demonstrates
that we should
--- dress those who are naked like Hashem dressed Adam (Bereshit
--- visit the sick like Hashem did with Avraham (Bereshit
--- bury the dead like Hashem did with Moshe (Devarim 34,
--- comfort those in mourning like Hashem did with Yitzhak
after the death of Avraham (Bereshit 25, 11).
Ribbi Simlai notes that one can see from this that the Torah
is composed, from beginning to end, entirely of acts of
of the Parasha
contains scenes which have been the subject of many important
commentaries. The main episodes are:
---Three visitors come to Avraham circumcised and announce
--- Sarah's laugh and her denial thereof.
--- God's promise to Avraham that he will beget a great
nation and that all nations will be blessed by him.
--- Avraham's plea on behalf of Sodom. The punishment of
Lot and the destruction of Sodom.
--- The act of incest between Lot and his daughters.
--- The abduction of Sarah by Avimelekh.
--- The birth of Yitzhak, Hagar's scorn and the banishment
of Hagar with Yishmael.
--- The pact made on Avraham's land by Avimelekh whose servants
destroyed Avraham's wells.
--- The "non-sacrifice" of Yitzhak (the akeda).
Many cultures have described these scenes symbolically in
literature, religion or art: it everyone's right to use
the symbols they please for creative purposes.
But if we
want to learn the meaning of these scenes according to Jewish
tradition, to which they belong (the one unquestionable
truth), we must first learn the rules of composition of
of this Internet site is not to transmit imaginative commentaries,
even if they are based on science, experience or creativity.
The purpose of this site is to teach the Torah through the
method of the Sages themselves: we will study the Torah
with the Sages, and try to demonstrate to readers their
method of interpretation and their tools of analysis.
My role is to present this as accurately as possible.
By slowly studying the approach of the Sages, readers will
learn to study like them, and with them.
1. In Judaism,
the theme of a story is only one of the elements that is
2. The theme
only acquires meaning through its linguistic form in Hebrew.
If a story keeps its meaning in translated form, this can
be seen as an error, particularly in regard to the Biblical
stories, because the real meaning is found in the formulation
of every single word and its link to other expressions in
the Tanakh (the five books of Moses and the prophets) in
which this word appears. It is only through this link to
key words and to their context, that the true meaning is
found. Unusual linguistic and grammatical forms are the
signs that indicate to us particular meanings. This is Rashi's
method of interpretation which uses special linguistic forms
as clues to understanding the meaning of the text, the peshat.
3. The guidelines
for the interpretation of these signs have been passed down
by oral tradition.
4. The way
I use this technique is to:
--- read the Torah in Hebrew,
--- ask yourself as many questions as possible in order
not to get carried away by the story.
--- take note at the same time of all possible meanings
that can serve as a moral lesson.
of the method of study
A very useful
example is found in the personal diary of Rabbenu Yosef
Caro in Magid mesharim. Rabbenu Caro does not begin with
the grand concepts which he more anyone is capable of analyzing,
but chooses rather to begin with a long list of questions
(the Shla does the same, as does the Talmud). I have quoted
the list below in order to demonstrate how one SHOULD study:
is it written (Genesis 18, 1): "And Hashem appeared
unto him" and not "Hashem appeared unto Avraham?"
--- Why is it written that He appeared unto him when nothing
is written about what He said?
--- How is it that God visited Avraham when he was sick
but did not speak to him, since words are an essential part
of the mitzva of bikur holim (visiting the sick)?
--- What is the significance in being told that this took
place " in the plains of Mamre" and of what concern
is this to us?
--- What is the significance in that he sat "in the
--- What are we meant to understand from "in the heat
of the day?" And why?
--- Why three men, and what is the meaning of the fact that
he ran to meet them?
--- What is the significance of the fact that he went to
fetch "a little water?"
--- what is the meaning of "under the tree?"
--- What is the meaning of "three measures of fine
--- What is the meaning of "So do, as thou hast said?"
--- What is the meaning of: "Avraham ran unto the herd?"
--- What is the meaning of: "And Sarah heard it in
the tent door?"
we can see that the traditional method of Torah study is
of the smallest units of meaning,
identification of significant elements, which can then be
linked to where they appear in other parts of the Tanakh
and the oral Torah,
a clear understanding of the different levels of the text.
is a far cry from interpretation that is based on a particular
external theory. Never forget this method and apply it systematically
to every Torah text.
Then it will be easier to study the commentaries and understand
the teachings of the Sages.
Rashi's commentary and answers to the first verses: you
will see that they follow exactly this method of analysis.
- Torah Or
We now move
past this phase of study, which seeks to find the exact
literal meaning - the peshat - and go onto the second phase
which is to seek to understand the inner meaning, what the
Shla calls "Torah or," Torah is light.
according to the Shla
22 describes the consequences of Avraham's acquiescence
to Hashem's commandments: he is faced with the injunction
to sacrifice his beloved son. The binding of Yitzhak by
his father Avraham is the most difficult trial that can
confront any man.
The Shla stresses the following:
the pact between the two men, Avraham and Yitzhak, in climbing
the mountain together and preparing for the sacrifice, astounds
Using the method we have described, the Shla goes on to
present a more precise interpretation which demonstrates
the nuances of this text.
is written: "And where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"
this question must also be seen as a prayer to God, that
He should bring another victim for the sacrifice (otherwise
Avraham knows it would have to be his son).
of the question must be understood in the context of the
fact that God grants an intercession prayer, as is constantly
repeated in the supplication prayers (slihot) which are
said at the beginning of the New Year. The Yalcut on verse
22, 9 describes the floods of tears and cries that accompany
is also an intense struggle which involves all of one's
being and the entire world. The commentaries write that
Yitzhak cries out when he recites the beginning of Psalm
121: "I lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence
cometh my help." Father and son carry out the will
of God but not with the joy that is asked of them.
This too raises a question and requires pause for thought.
Let us follow
the method of linguistic examination: another problem is
raised in verse 22, 5: "I and the lad will go yonder"
(ad ko). The Shla notes that the word "ko" signifies
reproof by Avraham against God who promised him an heir
with this same word ko: "ko yiye zarakha, so will be
thy seed" (15, 5).
answers these questions in a very long and complex analysis
of the text and notes that the meal offered by Avraham to
the three angels holds the key to understanding this passage.
finds the answer to these linguistic questions by analyzing
Avraham's existential dilemmas, as when he asks himself
whether the three people are human or angels. One of the
criteria he uses for distinguishing angels is that they
are immobile (as is written in Daniel 7, 16, and do not
jump as Tractate Berakhot of the Jerusalem Talmud 1, 1)
notes, whereas men are constantly in motion as is written
in Zachariah 3, 7.
One can see that the Torah text follows the same line of
questioning we have described, on condition it is read in
It is clear
that this mobility is linked to what God said to Abraham
("lekh lekha, go towards yourself"). The angels
add support to the presence of God, they form a merkava,
a chariot. Man walks, like Avraham and Yitzhak did towards
Mount Moriah (Jerusalem) and the righteous man walks in
such a way that nothing can halt him: "many waters
cannot quench love" (Song of Songs 8, 7). The living
waters of holiness (kedusha) have the power to destroy the
klipot that suffocate life.
Thus a text
which appears simple, because it seems to tell a simple
story, is in fact very complex. The method of studying the
text, however, is very clear. Once students learn it, they
can apply it to the entire Torah.
method, the Shla rejects any one interpretation and offers
instead two simultaneous, extreme levels of interpretation:
---- on the one hand, at the experiential level, the akeda
is a long, cruel, brutal and poignant trial that pits together
two people who love each other;
--- on the other hand there is the more intimate, dual level
of a dialogue involving the presence of God. This level
is symbolized by the perfumes in the Temple.
the level that moves the heart, as when Yitzhak is offered
as a sacrifice "of pleasant smell" (reah nihoah,
Shmot 29, 18); and when the angel of God tells Avraham not
to lay his hand on his son (22,12). The midrashim write
that when they reached the place of the two seraphim of
the Holy of Holies, it is at this moment that the divine
voice was heard.
meaning of the site of the sacrifice (which did not take
place) being Mount "Moriah" is now clearerm, for
moriah is the name of a perfume in Hebrew. One should note
too that the last word of the Song of Songs (besamim), which
refers to the mountain where the lover impatiently seeks
and exhorts The one she loves, also means "perfumes."
of Abraham and Isaac takes place in an atmosphere of extreme
tension and at many levels simultaneously; Judaism is not
a sinecure and we are warned of this from the very beginning
of its history, which is presented as a model for the future.
We learn from this story that man must go towards God with
all his soul, but he will also find that God will put a
limit on his extreme feelings of faith and devotion.
therefore, is not a religion that promises immediate "happiness
now" and claims "we know, we have got there."
Even the man who is most willing to say "yes"
to God, finds himself confronted by mysteries that restrict
his omnipotent desire to do good.
Indeed, even Moshe, the greatest of men, only acquires 49
degrees of Wisdom, not 50. And even though, as we have seen,
the mila (circumcision) is the only condition which enables
man to acquire knowledge of God, it does not do so completely.
The word mila is made up of the letters that form the word
Elokim, God, but notes the Shla, it does not include the
letter aleph which is the domain of God.
analyses in detail what is demanded in our relationship
with God and what is restricted, and we learn that this
is the same in the love between men, when it is intense
We learn here that religion and love both involve two pathologies:
indifference (not giving of oneself),
God is characterized by the same measured sensitivity as
that shown by Abraham towards his wife, towards his guests,
towards his son, towards the kings of other nations, and
towards God himself. The same qualities are found in "justice"
(din) and goodness (hessed).
been discovered and love will be the ultimate target, but
the road to love is full of hardships and trials.
These trials signify that love is authentic.
course, does not concord with our infantile need for a love
that is simple, fused, and immediate. We should remember
that Yitzhak is not a baby or a child when he undergoes
this trial in his relationship with his father Avraham:
he is 37 years old. This is not a childhood or adolescent
crisis; for it is only when people are mature that they
undergo such profound, unexpected and incomprehensible -
in the eyes of those involved and in the eyes of those around
them- trials in their relationships. If they are overcome
successfully, then the relationship will attain a deeper
and more meaningful level than it could have reached previously.
we learn from the way these two participants overcome their
if one is overcome by an imminent tragedy, we learn from
Avraham to see, through the darkness, the positive from
afar (read 22, 4). (What Avraham sees - yere - is the future
whole Jerusalem: yeru
one's servants (read 22, 5), the aides who simplify things,
pass judgment according to their own superficial criteria,
their evil designs, and their limited visions cannot see
the path directed by Hashem and believe that "gam zu
latov:" since Hashem is good, this trial will also
be for the good, even if for the moment we do not understand
its logic. Hashem's plan takes place over many years (as
we see in the long sterile years of the matriarchs) or over
many generations (it is important to say the God of Avraham,
the God of Yitzhak, the God of Jacob in order to adhere
to and fulfill his plan), as in the amida prayer.
that personal aspirations or difficulties are part of the
collective journey of many generations and find meaning
life and emotions of an individual Jew are lived out within
a context that is much broader than that of one individual.
This is seen most notably in the turbulent histories many
Ashkenazi and Sephardi families: in a cross section of 4
generations, one often finds secular exile, dramas, displacements,
assimilation and aliya to the land of Israel, which is the
aspiration of all generations. And this is not the end of
Judaism does not provide any easy shortcuts, such as: trial,
death, and resurrection in the space of a few decisive days,
and immediate entry to paradise on earth. This is a seductive
approach that is adopted by many fringe sects. But reality
still must be faced, as the inalterable criteria of the
Judaism was aware of this human tendency to find easy solutions,
it developed the sophisticated Talmudic method of reasoning
as a defense against the propositions of false messiahs,
false theories, and false saviors who seduce the gullible.
not mean that we err in having aspirations, or that the
holiness of certain Sages who led people astray is in question,
but simply that it is very difficult to discern what is
right and the consequences incurred by false messiahs have
been so painful that the Sages have always chosen to be
prudent rather than kindle the faith.
is, that even though the ram replaced Yitzhak in the sacrifice,
and the akeda concluded with joyful blessings, a terrible
price was still exacted: the death of Sarah. Despite the
glorious victory, Satan intervened, spreading the lie that
Yitzhak had died, and Sarah could not endure the anguish.
Avraham was left to bury his wife and his son his mother.
Yitzhak will find a wife to replace his mother, but Avraham
will never find Sarah again and his sorrow and tears will
We will see what happens to him in the following parasha.
the parasha in detail.
--- Study the references quoted in this commentary.
--- Read the beginning of Rashi's commentary, referring
to Rabbenu Yosef Caro's questions.
It is better to read a little, reflect and ask questions,
rather than read a lot in a purely intellectual manner.
the crises you yourself have undergone in your personal
and affective relationships and relate them to four concepts:
One. See, through the darkness, the positive from afar.
Two. Leave behind the servants (22, 5).
Three. "Gam zu latov."
Four. Examine personal aspirations or difficulties as part
of the collective journey of many generations and find meaning
these ideas with someone who is capable of listening and
avoid theoretical-political discussions.
the complex issues of moral conduct that stem from this
parasha and which are raised by the Shla (in the 3rd part
of his commentary):
--- the importance of hospitality and kind treatment of
others, especially those who are in a lower position than
--- the importance of making demands on children;
--- the importance of praying for sinners to return to the
--- the importance of requesting for others what one needs,
a condition for the request to be granted (Baba Kama 92);
--- the importance of giving all of oneself in order to
draw closer to Hashem and his plan.
Identify precisely to which part of the parasha each question