A Taste of Torah in Honor of Shabbat
by Rabbi Avi Weiss
Shabbat Parshat Vayera
15 Cheshvan, 5758
After Yishmael is born to Avraham (Abraham) and Hagar, Avraham is told by God
that he would have another child -- this time with Sarah. (Genesis 17: 16) Avraham
responds,"Oh that Yishmael might live before You," (Genesis 17:18) which Rashi
understands to mean, I am not worthy of so great a reward and would be satisfied if only
Yishmael lived before You. This an indication that at that point Avraham favored Yishmael
as his potential heir.
No wonder God's strong response: " But Sarah, your
wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Yitzhak (Isaac) and I will
establish my covenant with him...." (Genesis 17:19)
Avraham's uncertainty about Yitzhak, and God's constant
reminder that Avraham's heir will be Yitzhak is a theme repeated throughout this week's
portion--Vayera. Chapter 18: After the angels tell Avraham a child would be born to Sarah,
Sarah laughs. God then asks Avraham why Sara was skeptical. (Genesis 18:13) Most
commentators understand this as God's criticism of Sarah. Can it be suggested that
God is critical of Avraham--not Sarah. After all, if Sarah is laughing it means she
has been taken by surprise. Avraham, not overly excited by the promise of Yitzhak's birth
never told Sarah of God's promise that she'd bear a child--perhaps because Avraham
was satisfied with Yishmael.
Chapter 20: For a second time in his life Avraham tells
a foreign leader whose country he is visiting that Sarah is his sister. Is the
underlying message here that as Avraham's sister, Sarah could not be expected to bear his
Chapter 21: Avraham's love for Yishmael is
clearly enunciated as he objects to Sarah's plan to evict Yishmael after Isaac was born.
Chapter 22: Matters come to a crescendo when God tells
Avraham to take his son to Moriah. (Genesis 22:2) Note the Midrashic commentary: God
says, "take now thy son," to which the midrash has Avraham respond, but I
have two sons. God then states,"Your only son," to which Avraham according
to the midrash replies, but each is the only son of his mother. God
continues,"Whom you love," to which the Midrash has Avraham say, but I
love both. In other words at this late moment, Avraham expresses equal love for
Yishmael. Finally, God says "Yitzhak" an unequivocal declaration that the
covenantal continuity is through Isaac.
Hence the next portion of Hayei Sarah tells the story
of Avraham carefully choosing a wife for Yitzhak, as Avraham has come to understand that
his seed would be continued throughYitzhak and not Yishmael.
It must be recalled that Yitzhak loved Esau more than
Jacob. As Yitzhak initially favored the wrong son, so did Avraham. And as Rebecca
(Yitzhak's wife) correctly favored Jacob, so too does Sarah correctly favor Yitzhak. In
time of course, both Avraham and Yitzhak come to recognize who their true heirs will be.
The message: as great as the patriarchs were they
sometimes made mistakes in judgement. Second, the women's understanding of their
children was greater. Third, even though we are the chosen people, the fact that Avraham
loved Yishmael and Yitzhak loved Esau sends us the message that we must be careful in the
way we treat the other faith communities--the offspring of Yishmael and Esau.
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