Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bereshit 18:9-14 (Va-yera`) – A foil

Bereshit 18:9 records that the three visitors who visited Avraham asked where was Sara, and Avraham answered that she was in the tent. Afterwards, G-d told Avraham that Sara would have a child, 18:10. How does the question in 18:9 relate to 18:10? The visitors did not enter the tent or speak directly to Sara, as Sara only over heard what they were saying to Avraham, 18:10. The visitors did not even inquire as to Sara's welfare. Why did they ask about Sara's whereabouts?

Rashi (on 18:9) quotes from Baba Metzia 87a three answers. One, it is proper conduct 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 Havva, 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 Havva, and hence the question where are you was an introduction to the ensuing conversation. However, here the visitors did not speak to Sara. How can the question "where is Sara?" be a polite opening to a conversation that did not happen?

A different idea is that maybe it was the custom in those days that visitors would not speak directly to the wives of their hosts, and if a visitor wanted to speak to the wife, then she would stand behind a curtain, or here the tent.

Another difficulty with 18:10 is that the visitors told Avraham that Sara would have a child in the following year, but Avraham already knew this. 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 the information in 18:10 was for Sara, as in 17:16-21, G-d only told Avraham and did not speak to Sara. Yet, surely after waiting so many years for a child, Avraham would have told Sara this information, see Netziv on 18:10.

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. Did Avraham know that G-d was going to re-tell this information? Was there really no time at all? Avraham had time to tell Sara to make bread for the visitors, 18:6. Furthermore, the Abravanel (2007, p. 410 and Chavel, 1993, notes to Ramban on 18:16) points out that the visitors used the new 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.

Another question concerning this conversation, 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. Yet, Avraham had laughed when he heard this same information, 17:17, and he had not been rebuked. Why was Sara rebuked for laughing when Avraham had not been criticized? Furthermore, Avraham was not rebuked even though he laughed so strongly that he fell on his face, while Sara just laughed inwardly?

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. He also suggests that G-d did not want to rebuke either Avraham or Sara directly, and Sara was only rebuked since it was done indirectly.

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. Yet, if Avraham had not been rebuked for laughing the first time, why was it wrong to laugh a second time, and again Sara laughed much less this time than Avraham had laughed.

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 this idea from R. Saadiah Gaon, but I did not find it in my copy of his commentary.) The idea is that 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.

This idea of Hizkuni and R. Saadiah Gaon can 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. The visitors 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 visitors 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.

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.