1. Two interpretations of Avraham’s “great” celebration
At the opening of Parshat VaYerah, Avraham and Sarah are told that they will have a son in the coming year. Later in the parasha, this prophecy is fulfilled and Yitzchak is born. After two years, Yitzchak is weaned and Avraham makes a party. The above passage describes this celebration as a “great” party. To what specific characteristic of this celebration does the term “great” refer? According to Rashi the celebration was great because the most prestigious personalities of the generation attended. Rashi specifically identifies Shem and Ever as participants. These two ancestors of Avraham were great scholars and like Avraham they had rejected idolatry and were dedicated to the service of Hashem. According to Rashi, Avimelech the King of the Phelistim – the Philistines – also attended.
The midrash, in many places, seems to affirm Rashi’s interpretation of the term “great”. However, in most of these discussions in the midrash, specific personages who attended are not identified. The Midrash Rabbah on Sefer Devarim does provide a more specific description of the guests. According to this midrash these “great” guests were the kings and princes of the region. This interpretation seems somewhat different than Rashi’s. According to Rashi, the guests were not merely great personalities; they were individuals of proven moral character and religious enlightenment. The midrash seems to suggest that the great personages at the celebration were powerful rulers. They were great in their power and might, but not in their moral or religious stature. In fact, the midrash suggests that Og – the evil ruler later defeated by Moshe – was among these kings.
Rashi’s interpretation is easily understood. Avraham made this party in order to express his gratitude to Hashem for giving a son to him and Sarah. It was reasonable for him to invite those individuals who shared his dedication to Hashem and would share in his joy and gratitude to Hashem. However, the midrash’s interpretation is more difficult to understand. Why would Avraham include the region’s rulers among his guests? The inclusion of Og is especially odd!
Yalkut Shimoni – a collection of midrashic literature – adds a comment that is even more astounding. According to this midrash, the kings who attended Avraham’s celebration were the same kings that were later defeated by Yehoshua in his conquest of the Land of Israel. In other words, the midrash makes the point that these kings were both in attendance at the celebration and were also subsequently overthrown by Yehoshua. What message does the midrash intend to communicate by linking these two events?
And Avraham approached Hashem and he said: Will you even destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps, there are fifty righteous people within the city. Will You even destroy and not spare the place on behalf of the fifty righteous people that are in its midst? (Sefer Beresheit 18:23-24)
2. Avraham’s strange petition on behalf of Sedom
Earlier in the parasha, Hashem reveals to Avraham that He will destroy Sedom. Avraham appeals to Hashem and asks him to spare the city if fifty righteous individuals can be found among its inhabitants. This request leads a prolonged negotiation. Eventually, Avraham learns that Hashem will spare Sedom if only ten righteous individuals can be found among its citizens.
It is interesting that Avraham asked that the entire city be spared. He was certainly aware of the evil of Sedom’s citizens. Sparing the city would save the righteous but it would also allow the wicked to continue to torment and persecute the innocent. Why was Avraham not concerned with the negative aspects of sparing Sedom? Would it not have made more sense for Avraham to celebrate Hashem’s decision to destroy evil and ask merely that the righteous be rescued from the destruction?
Arise and travel through the land – its length and breadth – for to you it will be given. And Avraham pitched his tent and he came and dwelled in Elonai Mamrai that is in Chevron. And he built there an altar to Hashem. (Sefer Devraim 13:17-18)
3. Avraham the teacher
In these passages Hashem promises Avraham that his descendants will be given the Land of Cana’an. Avraham is commanded to transverse the land from north to south and from east to west. He completes this assignment and settles in Elonai Mamrai. There he constructs an altar. What was the purpose of this altar and why does the Torah discuss its creation? Radak explains that the various altars that Avraham erected were intended to serve as points of congregation. Avraham would encourage the residents of the region to come to the altar and there he would teach the people about Hashem and enlist them into exclusive worship of Him.
According to this interpretation, the passages present an interesting juxtaposition. Avraham is told that his descendants will posses this Land of Cana’an and Avraham responds by intensifying his efforts to rescue the indigenous people from paganism and idolatry. What is the message in this juxtaposition?
Maimonides’ opening chapter of his discussion of the laws of idolatry includes a biographical sketch of Avraham. One of the interesting elements of this sketch is that Maimonides describes two distinct stages in the development of Avraham’s mission. In the initial stage, Avraham directed his educational efforts to the people of his own city – Uhr Kasdim. However, after his abandonment of Uhr Kasdim, Avraham expanded his mission. He understood himself to be humanity’s teacher. Instead of focusing on educating his neighbors, Avraham set as his goal the reformation of the religious thinking of humankind. In fact, the Torah describes Avraham as an itinerate teacher. He moves from place to place. In each place he calls on the inhabitants to join him in the service of Hashem.
What point is Maimonides making by describing these two distinct stages? The initial stage of Avraham’s mission can be interpreted as self-serving. Avraham had discovered a set of truths by which he wished to live. He attempted to build around himself a community that shared his views. By creating a community, Avraham would make his own life more secure. Therefore, he focused his efforts upon his neighbors. In its second stage, Avraham’s mission was fundamentally altered. Avraham no longer focused his attention and efforts upon his neighbors. He now directed his efforts to the entirety of humanity. The communication of truth became paramount and self-interest was no longer a priority.
4. Avraham’s interpretation and pursuit of his mission
Now, the message communicated by the above juxtaposition can be identified. Avraham understood that his descendants were destined to displace the people of Cana’an. Also, he understood that Hashem is just and that his descendants would not be permitted to destroy and dispossess an innocent people. His descendants’ possession of the Land of Cana’an was directly linked to the degeneration of the land’s indigenous peoples. Self-interest would have suggested that Avraham not interfere with these people’s rapid descent into perversion and corruption. After all, their rapid degeneration would only hasten the rise of his own descendants. Nonetheless, Avraham reached out to the people of the region. Nothing was more important to Avraham than his message for humanity. His love of Hashem was more dear to him than the destiny of his descendents.
This attitude provides some insight into his response to the news of Sedom’s impending destruction. Avraham was in the process of teaching the people of that region. He certainly recognized that these were especially difficult people to reform. However, he was devoted to the salvation of all of humanity. Hashem’s message to Avraham evoked from him a request to allow him to continue his work. He asked Hashem to consider whether he was making progress. He asked that should fifty – or even ten – righteous people be found that the city be spared. Avraham was fully aware of the awful wickedness of the people of Sedom. Nonetheless, he wished to have the opportunity to reform them. If fifty – or even ten –righteous individuals could be found among the wicked, then he was making progress. He asked Hashem to postpone judgment and allow him to continue his efforts.
5. The impact of Avraham and his teachings
The various interpretations of Avraham’s party can now be better understood. The Torah tells us that Avraham made a “great” celebration to rejoice over the weaning of Yitzchak. What message is the Torah communicating to us by describing this celebration and referring to it as “great”? According to Rashi, the Torah is communicating to us that Avraham rejoiced in his gratitude to Hashem. He understood that Yitzchak represented the beginning of an unfolding destiny that would impact all of humankind. He invited those unique individuals who had the wisdom or insight to share in this realization. These guests were great people by virtue of this wisdom and enlightenment. In other words, the guests identified by Rashi define the purpose of the celebration.
The midrash understands the message of passages differently. These guests were great rulers. They were kings and princes. In the future, they or their descendants would be the corrupt, degenerate rulers destroyed by Yehoshua. However, at this earlier time in history, these same rulers or their ancestors were overwhelmed with awe of Hashem and His teacher Avraham. The birth of Yitzchak provided undeniable evidence of Hashem’s omnipotence, and His providence. Even these kings – who would later revert to idolatry and the most disgusting forms of paganism – realized the truth of Avraham’s teachings. According to this interpretation, the passages convey a different message. They assert that Avraham succeeded in his mission. He reeducated and reformed a generation.
1. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 21:8.
2. Midrash Rabbah, Sefer Devarim 1:25.
3. Yalkut Shimoni, Sefer Yehoshua 12:22.
4. The midrash does not necessarily mean that the self-same kings attended the celebration and hundreds of years later were overthrown by Yehoshua. It is very possible that the kings at the celebration were the ancestors of those defeated by Yehoshua. Nonetheless, the midrash is making the point that there is a direct connection between the defeated kings and their ancestors who attended Avraham’s celebration.
5. Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 13:18.
6. Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:3.
7. Thank you to Rabbi Moshe Kletenik for his input in developing this material.