The Butterfly Effect

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Reflections on Motherhood and Parshas Vayera

“A butterfly in Brazil alights upon a flower. The flit of the butterfly’s wing sends out a small current of air. Flowing northward, the current gains energy until, reaching Texas, it sets off a tornado.”

Last year, I had the pleasure of reading these evocative words, written by my friend Bernard Kabak, in Lincoln Square Synagogue’s newsletter. With them, he introduced a thought-provoking midrashic insight into Parshas Vayera: Of the 42 locations in which the Jewish People encamped during their desert wanderings, it was at Aloosh, mentioned in Parshas Masei (Bamidbar 33:13), that the miraculous manna first fell. Why was Aloosh accorded this honor? Because its name alludes to a single word uttered 400 years earlier: looshi.

Parshas Vayera’s dramatic prelude may have overshadowed that little word’s significance. There is Avraham, sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Suddenly, he sees three passersby. Offering them hospitality, he rushes to arrange their meal. We then read (Bereishis 18:6): “Va’y’maher Avraham ha’ohella, el Sarah; vayomer, ‘Mahari, shlosh s’im kemach soless; looshi, va’assi oogos.’” “And Avraham hurried to the tent, to Sarah, and he said, ‘Hurry. Three measures of the finest flour, go knead [looshi] and make loaves.’”

Looshi. One little word that might have gotten lost in the shuffle. But it did not escape Chazal’s attention. They explain that Hashem saw the devotion with which Sarah Imeinu prepared food for three strangers. And 400 years later at Aloosh, the encampment whose name alludes to looshi, Hashem reciprocated by providing three million of her descendants with manna.

A kind gesture for three. A miracle for three million. The butterfly effect over an expanse of time, not space.

Mr. Kabak’s insightful analysis of these historical bookends prompted me to apply the butterfly effect to two other mothers who come to life on Shabbat Vayera: Hagar and the Ishah HaShunamit (the Shunamite woman).

From generation to generation, Jews have elucidated common denominators that each Torah portion shares with its haftarah. Many consider the link between Parshat Vayera and its haftarah (Melachim II 4:1-37) to be childlessness, the pain of infertility and its resolution as experienced by Sarah Imeinu and the Ishah HaShunamit.

But I see a different common denominator, or should I say a stark contrast, between Parshas Vayera and its haftarah, each introducing its own butterfly effect whose consequences speak to us — actually, shout to us — to this very day.

The contrast I want to introduce is between Hagar — not Sarah — and the Ishah HaShunamit.

In Bereishit 21:15-16, we read of Hagar and Yishmael’s departure from Avraham and Sarah’s home:

“Vayichlu hamayim min hacheimess, vatashleich es hayeled tachas achad hasichim. Vateileich vateishev lah mineged harcheik, k’mitachavei keshes, ki amra, ‘Al er’eh b’mos hayeled.’ Vateishev mineged va’tisa es kola va’teivch.”

“When the water was consumed, she cast off the boy beneath one of the trees. She went and sat herself down at a distance some bowshots away, for she said, ‘Let me not see the death of the child.’ And she sat at a distance, lifted her voice and wept.”

The text offers us several salient points. Hagar casts her son — dehydrated but nowhere near death — under a tree. Instead of tending to him, she walks away and wails. Although she loves her son, her priority is to mitigate her pain rather than see him suffer.

But in Parshat Vayera’s haftarah, we meet a very different mother: the hospitable Ishah HaShunamit, whom Elisha HaNavi blessed with a son when it appeared she would never have one. In Melachim II 4:18-20, we read:

“Vayigdal hayeled, vayehi hayom, vayeitzei el aviv, el hakotzrim. Vayomer el aviv, ‘Roshi! Roshi!’ Vayomer el hanaar, ‘Sa’eihu el imo.’ Vayisa’eihu vayivi’eihu el imo vayeshev al birkeha ad ha’tzaharayim, vayamos.”

“The child grew up and it happened one day that he went out to his father, to the reapers. He said to his father, ‘My head! My head!’ His father said to the attendant, ‘Carry him to his mother.’ And he carried him and brought him to his mother. He sat on her lap until noon, and he died.”

No matter how much her heart is breaking, this mother never leaves her son, a child who is not merely dehydrated, but dying. But the contrast does not end here. What does she do when confronted with her child’s death? The Ishah HaShunamit has no time for tears. Unlike the passive, helpless Hagar, she springs into action (Melachim II 4:24):

“Vatachavosh ha’aton, vatomer el na’ara, ‘Nehag valech. Al ta’atzor li lirkov ki im amarti lach.’”

“Then she saddled an ass, and said to her servant: ‘Drive and go forward; don’t slow down unless I tell you.’”

But there’s more. When she reaches Elisha, this reserved, righteous woman behaves uncharacteristically (Melachim II 4:27-28):

“Vatavo el ish haElokim…vatachazek b’raglav… Vatomer, ‘…Halo amarti, Lo tashleh oti?’”

“And when she came to the man of God… she caught hold of his feet… And she said, ‘…Did I not say: Do not deceive me?’”

Finally, when Elisha instructs his servant to rush to the child on his behalf, this distraught mother throws etiquette to the wind (Melachim II 4:30):

“Vatomer eim hana’ar, ‘Chai Hashem v’chei nafshecha im e’ezveka.’”

“And the child’s mother said, ‘As Hashem lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you [unless you yourself accompany me to my child].’”

Thousands of years later, what do we see if not the butterfly effect? Female descendants of Hagar wail as they turn aside, leaving their children, who are nowhere near death, to die — and not to die quietly under a bush, but to die in the eye of a monstrous hurricane of explosive flames.

In contrast, what do we see in the spiritual descendants of the Ishah HaShunamit if not the butterfly effect? This past summer offered us a tragic case in point: In Jerusalem, a terrorist behind the wheel of a bulldozer went on a rampage, crushing a woman — 33-year-old Batsheva Unterman, hy”d — to death. In the last seconds of her life, what did this quintessential Jewish mother (a woman who, like the Ishah HaShunamit, struggled with infertility) do? Quoting the Jerusalem Post, she “succeeded in unbuckling her five-month-old baby from the car-seat and passing her out through the window to safety,” foregoing the chance to save her own life.

Yehi ratzon, may it be Hashem’s will, that with every passing day we will witness and, through our Torah observance, intensify Jewish history’s butterfly effect so that, in the words of Yeshayahu (40:31):

“V’kovei Hashem yachlifu koach, ya’alu eiver ka’nesharim.”

“They that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles.”

Chava Willig Levy is a New York-based writer, editor and lecturer who communicates about the quality and meaning of life. She can be reached via her web site:

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.