More on this Parsha


This Issue's Halacha Article

Parshat Vayeira

20 Cheshvan 5767

November 11, 2006

Vol.16 No.8

In This Issue:

The Intricacies of Laughter

by Mr. Moshe Glasser

Of all the characters and stories that make up Sefer Bereishit, few are as odd as the story surrounding the birth and naming of Yitzchak Avinu. Yitzchak is the only one of the Avot whose name is not changed by Hashem, and reasonably so "" his name is provided by Hashem, Himself, toward the end of Parshat Lech Lecha (17:19). Hashem does not explain why He has chosen this name for Yitzchak, but simply gives the instruction to Avraham, along with the instructions to perform the first Brit Milah.

Hashem's reason soon becomes clear, though He does not clarify Himself openly. As Avraham is told by the three visitors he receives early in Parshat VaYera, Sarah will soon bear a son. Her accompanying laughter is criticized (18:15), but the Shoresh (root word) that makes up what she does not yet know will be her son's name comes up too close to the revelation of Yitzchak's coming birth to be a coincidence. (One is forced to assume that Avraham did not tell Sarah of Hashem's previous mention of Yitzchak, or else she would not have laughed. The Pasuk, itself, certainly does not mention any such conversation.)

As the Parsha continues, Yitzchak is indeed born and Avraham names him as he was instructed in Lech Lecha "" although no mention is made of the Divine origin of the name itself (21:3). The Pasuk even seems to provide a linguistic explanation for the name (as the Pasuk does for many other names in Bereishit and elsewhere, most notably those of Yaakov Avinu's twelve sons and daughter), as Sarah says that Hashem has brought her laughter and joy, as well as other people becoming happy on her behalf (21:6). The Pasuk, however, leaves it open, and Sarah's line about laughter is not clearly mentioned as the reason for Yitzchak's name. Indeed, Sarah subtly criticizes herself when she wonders at the one (she herself, early in the Parsha) who doubted her own ability to nurse children. Rashi's explanation (based on the comments of the Bereishit Rabbah) of Sarah's joy is poetic in its beauty: "Many barren women conceived, many sick people were healed, many prayers were answered, and much laughter came into the world."

But the laughter did not stay positive. Soon after, Sarah notices a new laughter (with the same Shoresh), that of Yishmael (21:9), and orders Hagar and Yishmael out.

We are left with several uses of the same verb (Tzaddi, Chaf, Kuf), some positive (the birth of Yitzchak), some not (Sarah's mocking, Yishmael's mocking), but all using the same verb. I have always loved the Hebrew language for its precision. The Torah has no synonyms: every word is chosen by Hashem to express a particular idea, and no other word, no matter how similar its meaning, shares the same idea. So how can we be left with the same term having both positive and negative connotations? Shouldn't a term be one or the other, for precision's sake?

This question bothered me for many years, and it is only recently that I have begun to understand the message behind this multiple usage. English, unlike Hebrew, is a very verbose and often imprecise language: it has synonyms and superfluities to spare, redundancies even in words that mean "redundant." While "gigantic," "humongous," "enormous," and "overlarge" all mean pretty much the same thing, one might choose a particular term for its rhythm, spelling, phonetics, or alliteration. But many synonyms have shades of meaning as well. "Laugh," "snicker," "chuckle," "giggle," "cackle," "chortle," "snort," "guffaw," and "hoot" all have different meanings, and a good writer will use each when it, and no other from the list above, is appropriate.

At least two, and possibly three, different aspects of laughter are being suggested in the Pesukim we noted above, but the same verb is used. In a language of such care and precision as Hebrew, by an Author as careful and precise as Hashem, the lesson is clearly that very use. Hashem is reminding us how easily a joyous shout can turn into a good-natured laugh; how a kind guffaw can become a cruel snicker. I have seen a gentle mocking turn into a malicious cackle far more often than I care to remember. Laughter, the word "Tzachek" tells us, is in and of itself neither good nor bad, but is determined by intention.

Yitzchak serves as the bridge between the generation that gave up everything to follow Hashem into His land and the generation that will give up everything to endure the long exile that will forge that family into a nation. His very name warns us that care must go into every interaction and relationship, lest the joy of Sarah becomes the sneer of Yishmael.

Insights into Hachnasat Orchim

by Shai Berman

At the beginning of this week's Parsha, the Torah tells us of Avraham's desire to do the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim and the Malachim's foretelling of the future. From this, we learn many Halachot of Hachnasat Orchim.

Immediately after Avraham saw the Malachim, Avraham asked Hashem (18:3), "Im Na Matzati Chein BeEinecha, Al Na Taavor MeiAl Avdecha," "If I have found favor in Your eyes, please do not leave your servant." Both Rashi and Chazal say that Avraham said this Tefillah before he greeted his guests. This shows us that Avraham had left the presence of Hashem to welcome the Orchim. Chazal (Shabbat 127a) learn from this that it is more important to greet guests than to greet Hashem's Shechinah.

After Avraham invited his guests to stay, he chose a cow for Yishmael to slaughter. He then went to get butter and milk for his guests. Avraham did all of this by himself, even though he could have asked one of his many servants to do it for him. From here we can learn that even though one may have others able to do the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim for him, he should run to do the Mitzvah himself.

Avraham told his guests that they should stay and that he would bring them bread, but Avraham brought more than bread. He provided his guests with meat, milk, and butter, far more than he had promised. Chazal learn from this the Halacha, "Emor Me'at VaAsei Harbei," "Say little and do a lot."

When the Malachim came, Avraham asked them to wash their feet. Rashi comments that Avraham asked the Malachim to do this because he thought that these people were Arabs that bow down to the dust of their feet (since they worshipped Avodah Zarah). We can infer from this that one should do the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim for anybody, even for Ovdei Avodah Zarah.

With the information from the last Halacha, we can learn a basic difference between the Hachnasat Orchim of Avraham and of Lot. When the Malachim came to Avraham, the Pasuk (18:12) states, "VeHinei Sheloshah Anashim," "And, behold, there were three men." When the Malachim came to Lot, the Pasuk (19:1) says, "VaYavo'u Shenei Malachim," "Two angels came." When the Malachim came to Avraham, they looked like ordinary men. Avraham accepted them as guests even though he thought they could have been Ovdei Avodah Zarah. When the Malachim came to Lot, they looked like Malachim. Perhaps, Lot welcomed his guests only because he knew that they were angels.

We can learn from Avraham's Chesed that we should treat others kindly, no matter whom they are or what opinion we may have of them. We should not turn our shoulder to anyone in need. Bnei Yisrael are described as "Rachmanim Bnei Rachmanim," "Compassionate people, sons of compassionate people." If someone is in trouble, we help them. It does not matter to us what religion they practice. When, in 2004, a tsunami hit Indonesia, a predominately Muslim country, Israel sent a tremendous amount of money to help it recover. Israel has also sent money to America for Katrina relief. In these instances, Israel acts as all Jews must. Bnei Yisrael helps everyone in need, and we personally should try to do the same.

The Importance of Yirat Shamayim

by Joseph Jarashow

There are two occurrences in Parshat VaYera that involve Avimelech, the king of the Pelishtim. We are first introduced to him when the Torah recounts Avraham's journey to Avimelech's land. The Torah tells how Avimelech took Sarah from Avraham, not knowing that she was married. Later in the Parshah, we meet Avimelech again, when Avraham accuses Avimelech's servants of stealing wells from him. Although these two episodes seem entirely unrelated, Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky explains that the two stories share many common characteristics and are therefore meant to be compared to each other.

Both of Avimelech's sins involve Gezeilah, stealing. In the first case, he steals a wife from her husband. In the second, his servants steal Avraham's wells. In addition, Avimelech provides essentially the same justification for both cases. He says that he was unaware that Sarah was a married woman and he also claims that he did not know that his servants had stolen any wells.

However, the difference between the two episodes is in Avraham Avinu's responses. When Avraham addresses Avimelech for taking Sarah, he attributes the sin to the spiritual environment of Avimelech's society, or lack thereof. Avraham says (20:11), "Rak Ein Yirat Elokim BaMakom HaZeh," "There is but no fear of God in this place." Concerning the theft of the wells, however, Avraham does not provide an explanation for why the theft occurred, because he had already explained the reason when he first addressed Avimelech. It is obvious that a society that would allow theft of a human being would condone theft of wells.

There is a basic question which emerges from Avraham's response. He attributes the theft of his wife to a lack of Yirat Hashem. However, it is possible to have a community which lacks Yirat Hashem but nevertheless respects other people's property and does not engage in theft!

Rabbi Sobolofsky explains that Avraham Avinu specifically responds as he does in order to refute this logic. The root of all evil, whether manifested in Bein Adam LaMakom or Bein Adam LaChaveiro, stems from a lack of Yirat Hashem. Avraham is stressing the importance of Yirat Hashem and rejecting the possibility that a society can live morally and ethically without it.

We should all be Zocheh to apply this idea that Avraham Avinu has established for us and to strive to reach the appropriate level of Yirat Hashem.

True Compassion

by Dani Yaros

In Parshat VaYera, the Torah describes the cities of Sedom and Amorah in which people were so wicked that there was a law prohibiting one from providing food or money to a poor person. Yet we find that Avraham Avinu begged HaKadosh Baruch Hu to spare the people of Sedom and Amorah, despite the fact that these people represented traits that were contradictory to the traits for which Avraham stood. Why did Avraham consider it so necessary to daven that the wicked people of Sedom and Amora be saved?

Rav Moshe Feinstein zt"l provides an answer to this question. Generally, when one hears about the suffering of another human being, he begins to daven for that person. However, when one is informed of the suffering of his enemy, with whom he disagrees, one often mistakenly goes so far as to thank the Ribono Shel Olam for making this person suffer, thinking that his enemy deserves the punishment that he receives. Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Avraham realized that it is wrong to daven only for the welfare of people with whom one agrees. Avraham Avinu recognized that even the people from Sedom, with whom he disagreed so fiercely on so many issues, deserved to be davened for, and that even they should be pitied for the affliction that they were destined to receive. We must learn from Avraham that just as he davened for even the lowlifes of Sedom, so too, we must daven for our fellow human-beings, regardless of what their viewpoints on life may be. We must pray that each and every person who is suffering has his needs fulfilled with Hashem's help.

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