Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bereshit 18:9-15 (Va-yera`) – A foil

Bereshit 18:9 records that the messengers who were visiting Avraham asked where was Sara, and were told that she was in the tent. Yet, afterwards the messengers did not enter the tent or speak directly to Sara, as Sara only over heard what they were saying to Avraham, 18:10. The messengers did not even inquire as to Sara's welfare. Why then did the messengers ask about Sara's whereabouts?

Rashi (on 18:9) quotes from Baba Metzia 87a three answers. One, proper conduct is that a person should ask their host about their spouse's welfare, two the question was to increase Avraham's love for Sara or three, the question was to send her the wine cup of blessing. All of these answers are difficult. They did not ask about Sara's welfare, it is difficult to see how a question concerning Sara's location would increase Avraham's love for her and there is no mention that they gave her anything.

Rashbam explains that the question, where was Sara, was simply a way to begin the conversation, as we see by the Garden of Eden where G-d asked where were Adam and Chava, 3:9. (Rashbam also cites Bemidbar 22:9, Kings II 20:14 and Isaiah 39:3, but the questions in these verses do not refer to a person's location.) Yet, the cases are not parallel since by the Garden of Eden, G-d spoke to both Adam and Chava, and hence the question where are you was an introduction to the ensuing conversation. However, here the messengers did not speak to Sara. How can the question where is Sara be a polite opening to a conversation?

Anther difficulty is that the messengers told Avraham that he would have a child in the following year, 18:10, but why did Avraham have to be told this information? 17:16-21 records that Avraham had already been told by G-d that he was to have a son. One answer (see Rashi on 18:2) is that this message was to Sara, as in 17:16-21, G-d only told Avraham and did not speak to Sara. Yet, surely Avraham would have told Sara this information?

Ramban (end of 18:15) argues that Avraham never told Sara about the impending birth since either he wanted Sara to hear from G-d directly or that Avraham had been too busy since he had immediately circumcised himself after hearing about the son and he was still recovering from the circumcision. Both answers are difficult. It is very unlikely that Avraham would not have told Sara immediately about this great news of a child. In fact, as Abravanel (Horev edition, p.410 and Chavel, 1993, notes to Ramban on 18:16) points out, the messengers use the name Sara and not Sari, which means that she must have learned about the change of her name and this change of name was concurrent with news of the upcoming birth. In any event, how could the announcement be for Sara's benefit if the messengers did not speak to her?

Abravanel answers that the messengers intended to speak to Sara, but sensed that Avraham did not want them to speak to her, so they spoke to Avraham. Yet, G-d would have known this fact before sending the messengers, and the messengers could have left without repeating the announcement to Avraham. The Netziv (on 18:10) writes that for sure Sara knew the previous announcement of the birth, but the message was to further clarify the timing of the future birth. This is also difficult since 17:21 (when G-d spoke to Avraham before) records that the birth was to be at the "this time next year," which already gives the same approximate time as here. Also, if the message here was really more exact, then why was this not mentioned by the first announcement?

Another question concerning this announcement by the messengers is the re-action to the announcement. After Sara overheard the news about the birth she laughed to herself since she doubted that she and Avraham could have a child, 18:12. G-d then questioned Avraham as to why Sara was laughing, and said "Is anything beyond G-d?" 18:13,14. Why was Sara rebuked for laughing when Avraham had not been criticized when he laughed when G-d had told him about the birth of Yitzhak (17:17)? Furthermore, Avraham was not rebuked even though he heard the message directly from G-d, while Sara was rebuked when she laughed after hearing the message from what she thought were ordinary people.

Ramban (on 17:7 and 18:15) distinguishes between their laughter. Avraham laughed out loud, which he claims was a sign of happiness, while Sara laughed to herself, which he claims was a form of mocking showing her disbelief. Bekhor Shor (on 17:7) suggests a similar approach, that as Avraham fell on his face upon hearing the news of the birth this signaled a laughter of happiness.

Abravanel suggests that Avraham was not punished since he laughed by the first announcement of the birth, but Sara was punished since this was already the second time she had been told of the impending birth. This also seems difficult since Abravanel himself argues that Sara had no idea that these people were messengers of G-d, and hence she probably though the people were just giving their personal blessing to Avraham, (see Radak on 18:12). Thus when Sara laughed, the announcement was meaningless to her.

Hizkuni (on 18:13, also see Torah Shelemah 161) writes that the situation is similar to a woman who wants to criticize her daughter-in-law and does so by criticizing her own daughter with the idea that the daughter-in–law will also get the message. The idea being that Avraham was also being criticized when G-d criticized Sara. Yehuda Keel (2000, on 18:15) quotes from R. Saadiah Gaon (I did not find it in my copy of his commentary) a similar idea. Really, Avraham should also have been criticized for laughing but G-d waited until Sara laughed and then the criticism of Sara was also intended for Avraham.

I like this idea of Hizkuni and R. Saadiah Gaon, but if Avraham was supposed to be criticized why did G-d have to wait for Sara to laugh? Why was Avraham not criticized immediately after he laughed? My guess is that the delay was due to the fact that Avraham and G-d were making a covenant in chapter 17, and during the establishment of the covenant, where Avraham was circumcising himself when he was 99, it was inappropriate to criticize Avraham. However, immediately after the covenant was completed then Avraham could be criticized for laughing.

Maybe one can extend Hizkuni and R. Saadiah Gaon's idea, and really the criticism was only meant for Avraham since G-d only questioned Avraham about Sara's laughter but did not speak to Sara, 18:13. 18:15 records that Sara denied having laughing, which caused someone to speak to her but it is very possible that had Sara not denied having laughed then she never would have been addressed altogether.

This idea of Hizkuni and R. Saadiah Gaon can also explain why the announcement of the future birth was repeated and why the messengers asked where was Sara but did not actually go to speak to her. The answer is that since Avraham was to be rebuked for his laughing this meant that there was a need for a second announcement to recreate a situation where Avraham could be criticized for laughing. Avraham was not likely to laugh again but Sara could laugh, and then Avraham could be criticized for Sara's laughter, 18:13,14. In fact, to increase the chance that Sara would laugh, she was given no indication that these messengers were messengers of G-d. The messengers asked for Sara not to speak to Sara but to get her attention to listen to the conversation, which would lead her to laugh. My guess is that either she heard her name being mentioned or when the messengers asked Avraham where was Sara, either Avraham or his servant went and checked that she was in fact in the tent, and this inquiry prompted Sara to listen to the conversation. However, because the goal was to criticize Avraham for his previous laughter the messengers only spoke to Avraham.

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