Hebrew Insights into Parashat Va’yera
B’resheet (Genesis) 18 - 22
“Va’yera,” which is translated
"he appeared," actually means "and he showed
himself," and even more literally: “and he caused himself to be
seen”. “Yera” stems from the root
r.a.h. (resh, alef, hey), meaning to "see". Some of its other derivatives are:
"seen, to show, to be seen, and sight". Certainly, "seeing"
plays a major role in this Parasha. Yes,
YHVH does show Himself to Avraham – but it was up to the latter to do the seeing.
The opening statement in 18:1-2 reads
thus: “YHVH appeared to him… and he lifted up his eyes and saw… three
men!" This peculiar wording indicates that while looking, Avraham had to see
beyond what met his eye. But before we continue, let us note that last week’s
Parashat Lech Lecha also had its share of “seeing”, such as in 12:7, where it
is ‘seen’ twice (as “appreared”), similar to the way it is used in our Parasha.
Then there was the concern of the beautiful Sarai being “seen” by the Egyptians
(12:12, 14). In 13:10
The principle promulgated by Yeshua in Matthew 25:40, namely, "inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me", is apparent throughout chapter 18. Avraham (as he is called now) appears to be keenly aware of the fact that by entertaining strangers, one could unknowingly (or knowingly), be entertaining (at the very least), angels… (ref. Hebrew 13:2). The strangers passing by, whether one of them is or is not YHVH Himself, are greeted by their host, in word and deed, with great respect and homage not unbefitting royalty.
The passage at hand (in chapter 18) contains
significant interplays between singular and plural* as in verse 3 Avraham
addresses the three men who had just appeared to him as "Adonai" (“my
Lords”) saying: “…If now I have found favor in your [single person] sight, pass
not away from your [single person again] servant". Verses 4 and 5,
however, employ the second person plural. But in verse 10, where the promise of
the son who is to be born to Sarah within the year is pronounced, there is a
switch to singular again (“and he said I will return”, italics
added). It is YHVH who is actually mentioned in verses 13 and 14, as the One
addressing Avraham (relating to Sarah’s response), while in v. 16 the “men
rise up” and get ready to leave. Starting with verse 17 the scene changes
altogether. In the passage which
commences here (describing Avraham's intercession on behalf of the cities of
Sdom and Amora –
Back to chapter 18, where Avraham’s guests stand and view Sdom from a distance, while the Elohim who "showed Himself" to Avraham determines (v. 17) to (literally) not "cover" His plans from His servant, and to inform him what He was about to do (to Sdom and Amora). YHVH then declares that He Himself aims to "come down and see if they had done according to the outcry that had come" to Him (18:21 italics added. As to “coming down”, cf Gen. 11:5). In this instance, the "seeing" is a symbolic "inspection" or a declaration of intent that will obviously be followed by action on YHVH’s part. This “outcry” is echoed in 19:13, which says: “… we will destroy this place, because the outcry against them has grown great…”
Following Avraham's bargaining scene with YHVH, we
meet his nephew Lot as
he is sitting in the evening by the gate of Sdom (whereas his uncle had been sitting
at the door of his tent in the heat of day).
Now it is his turn to "see" (19:1).
Laughter was also part of the above-mentioned scene with Avraham and his guests. The three visitors came in order to reaffirm, once again, the promise of a son. Sarah, who overheard this conversation, laughed in her tent and later denied it (18:12-15). What’s more, this is not the last time that she is seen laughing. After giving birth, exactly within the year as YHVH had declared, Sarah says, "Elohim has made me laugh, and everyone who hears of it will laugh at me" (21:6 italics added). “And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian… mocking” (the word is again “laughing,” v. 9, italics added). "Seeing" this “laughter” results in the banishment of Hagar and her son Yishmael (Ishmael). The banished handmaiden wanders in the wilderness by Beer Sheva, and when her drinking water is used up she places her son under a shrub and exclaims: “Let me not see the death of the boy. And she … lifted up her voice and cried" (v.16 italics added). “And Elohim opened her eyes and she saw a well of water; and she went and filled the bottle with water, and gave drink to the boy” (v. 19 italics added).
Hagar's eyes are opened in the wilderness of Beer Sheva. The episode that follows (21:22 – 32) expounds on the meaning of that town’s name. Beer Sheva is literally "the well of seven". The words “adjure, charge, and oath” share the same root (sh.v.a, shin, bet/vet, ayin). “Satisfaction, or to have had enough” (especially regarding food), is “sovah”, being of the same root (although the letter “shin”, the “sh” sound, is modified to a “sin” - “s” sound). The usage of the number seven is often indicative of “fullness” and “completeness”, and as such it is also a solemn promise, or an oath that can be guaranteed simply by repeating it seven times (or by using multiplications of seven). The connection between these two words ("seven" and "oath") is well illustrated here in our story, namely in Avraham and Avimelech's settlement. Avraham places seven (“sheva”) ewe lambs in front of Avimlelech, as a witness to the fact that he had dug the well that was now under dispute. Following this action "he called that place Beer Sheva, because there the two of them took an oath (sh'vu'ah, v. 31)". In Matthew 18:21, we see Peter proclaiming that the act of forgiving up to seven times is sufficient. Yeshua, of course, goes beyond that but He too stays within the ‘realm of seven’ saying, "up to seventy times seven” (v. 22). Truly, “…The words of YHVH are pure words; as silver… refined seventy times" (Ps. 12:6). The figure ‘seventy’ tells us that His words promise to guarantee full satisfaction. "…On the day when YHVH binds up the fracture of His people and heals the bruise He has inflicted… the light of the sun will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven days" (Is. 30:26). Again, the guarantee of fullness in the form of "sevens" renders it like an oath. The sunrise and sunset dictate the formation of any given day, just as the sun and the moon control the length of the months and seasons of the Biblical year. The seven-day week, however, seems to be quite arbitrary - but is it? Elohim chose to create the world in six days and then to add one more at the end, which He set apart for rest, remembrance, and declaration. The sanctification of the seventh day, the commemoration of the number "seven" (in naming the “week” “shavu’a”), the fullness and completeness of what Elohim has accomplished, and its guaranteed fulfillment are all innately expressed in the Hebrew language by the root sh/s.v.a: "In Your presence there is fullness ("sova") of joy; I will be satisfied (“es'be'ah”) with Your likeness when I awake" (Ps. 16:11 & 17:15). To seal off the episode of Avraham’s test, YHVH declares: "By Myself I have sworn – nish’ba’ti - ’ says YHVH, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only one, blessing I will bless you, and multiplying I will multiply your seed…” (22:16-17 italics added)
This blessing is
the peak of Avraham’s tests, known as the "binding of Yitzchak
(Isaac)", or “Akedat Yitzchak”. But
before we go on to examine the Akeda, we cannot dismiss the fact that Abraham
was very upset when Elohim told him to listen to Sarah and send away Hagar and
her son. Thus, before being told to sacrifice Yitzchak, he also had to give up
Yishma’el, whom he held as his son, while Elohim called the latter “the son of
the handmaiden” (as did Sarah. Ref. 21:10-13). After a three-day journey, set
off by the words “lech le’cha”, with Yitzchak and two of his servants “…Avraham
lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar…” (22:4 italics
added). Responding to his son's
question, as to the whereabouts of the lamb for the sacrifice, Avraham says, "Elohim
will see for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son" (v. 8
literal translation, italics added).
YHVH does indeed "see" (translated as “provide”)
a substitute for Yitzchak in the form of a ram…
"And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and behold, a ram was caught in
the thicket by his horns. And Abraham
called the name of the place ‘YHVH Yir'eh - will see’ - as it is said to
this day - 'it shall be seen on the
In the opening verses of our Parasha we saw Avraham “seeing” YHVH by using his 'inner eyes' and discernment, even when looking upon three men. YHVH is also seen as the One who reveals His "secret to His servants the prophets" (Amos 3:7) prior to judging Sdom and Amora, though not before doing His own "seeing" of the state of affairs there (ref. 18:21). Further, His messengers' aura of light impairs the vision of the spiritually blind. Avimelech sees YHVH in a dream which prevents him from sinning with Sarah (ref. 20:3, 4). What the latter “sees” (ref. 21:9) causes her to send Hagar and Yishmael away, but their needs are “seen to” by YHVH in the wilderness (ref. 21:014-19). Finally, YHVH is the One who “sees” (present tense) for Himself the sacrificial Lamb provided by Him for all time (ref. 22:8, 14). And so, as it is in the beginning so it is at the end of the Parasha - YHVH reveals Himself. More on Avraham’s, this time long range vision, is found in the words of Yeshua who declared to the Pharisees: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad" (John 8:56). Quite likely this is connected to Avraham’s statement regarding the future “lamb for the sacrifice”.
Earlier we noticed that Avraham was
sitting at the tent door “in the heat of the day” (18:1) denoting daylight,
while Lot was sitting at the gate of the city of
In 19:37 and 38 we learn of the origin of the Moabites
and the Amonites. The fact that they are the product of an incestuous
relationship is expressed by the name of the older of the two: “Mo’av”
stems from “m’av”, meaning “from a father”, as the boy had been
begotten by his mother’s father (his own grandfather). The second boy’s mother
names him “Ben Ami” (Ammon), meaning “son of my
people”, which is also a reference to the close family tie.
*In all these cases this is much more pronounced in the Hebrew original than in the translations, one reason being that in English there is no distinction between you singular and plural, which there is in Hebrew.