“Because I know him,” says G‑d of Abraham in a key passage in the Parshah of Vayeira, “that he will command his children and his household after him that they shall keep the way of G‑d, to do tzedakah and justice.”
Indeed, this week’s Torah reading is replete with examples of Abraham’s tzedakah (commonly translated as “charity,” but actually meaning “righteousness”)—a trait which Abraham cultivated to the extent that it came to define his very identity.
The first verse of Vayeira describes a divine revelation experienced by Abraham: “G‑d revealed Himself to him in the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.” But the divine visit is interrupted when Abraham excuses himself from G‑d’s presence (!) to rush toward three wayfarers who suddenly appear, and offer them hospitality.
He raised his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood by him; when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground.
He said: “My Lord! If now I have found favor in your eyes, pass not away, I beg you, from your servant.
“Let a little water, please, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort your hearts; after that you shall pass on—seeing that you have come to your servant . . .”
Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said: “Quickly make ready three measures of fine meal, knead it and make cakes.”
Abraham ran to the herd, and fetched a tender and good calf, and gave it to the boy; and he hurried to prepare it. He took cream, milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; he stood by them under the tree, and they ate.
And then one of the three mystery guests makes an announcement:
“I will certainly return to you at this time next year, and behold, your wife Sarah shall have a son.”
In the previous Parshah, we read how Abraham laughed upon hearing the news that Sarah will bear him a son. Now the Torah reports that
Sarah heard it in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; the manner of women had ceased for Sarah.
Sarah laughed within herself, saying: “After I am grown old shall I have my heart’s desire, my lord being old also?”
G‑d said to Abraham: “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, when I am old?’ Is anything too difficult for G‑d? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this season, and Sarah shall have a son.”
Abraham Pleads for Sodom
Abraham’s guests had another mission to attend to that day: to destroy the city of Sodom and its four sister cities, “Because the cry of [the victims of] Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous.”
Abraham’s love of his fellow man does not allow him to stand by silently:
Abraham confronted G‑d and said: “Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous people within the city; would You also destroy and not spare the place for the fifty righteous that are therein?
“It behooves You not to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked. . . . Shall the Judge of all the earth not act justly?”
Abraham continues to bargain with G‑d: What if there are 45 righteous individuals in the “Cities of the Plain”? Forty? Thirty? Twenty? Only when Abraham has received G‑d’s promise to spare the cities if even only ten righteous ones be found, does “G‑d go His way . . . and Abraham returned to his place.”
The Destruction of the Sodom Valley
Two of the three angels (as they are now identified in the verse) proceed to Sodom: one of them goes to destroy the city, and the other to rescue Abraham’s nephew Lot, who had taken up residence there.
The two angels came to Sodom at evening, and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom. Seeing them, Lot stood up to meet them, and he bowed himself with his face to the ground.
Lot, who had acquired something of his uncle’s legendary hospitality, invites them to his home, and feeds them matzot (unleavened bread).
But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, surrounded the house, both old and young, all the people from every quarter. They called to Lot and said to him: “Where are the men who came to you this night? Bring them out to us, that we may rape them.”
Lot confronts the mob in an effort to defend his guests, but they push past him and are about to break down the door. Only the intervention of the angels, who smite the mob with blindness, disperses them.
At this point the angels reveal to Lot that G‑d has sent them to destroy the evil cities of the Sodom Valley, and only he and his family will be spared.
When the dawn was breaking, the angels hurried Lot, saying: “Arise, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be consumed because of the iniquity of the city . . .”
It came to pass, when they had brought them outside, that he said: “Flee for your life; do not look behind you, and do not stand in the entire plain. Flee to the mountain, lest you perish.”
Lot’s wife violates this command, looks back to witness G‑d’s destruction of Sodom, and turns into a pillar of salt.
G‑d rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from G‑d out of heaven. He turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground.
Lot, however, prevails upon the angels to spare the smallest of the five cities, Zoar. Lot and his two daughters go there, but, fearing that the city is enjoying only a temporary respite from G‑d’s wrath, they escape to the mountains and take refuge in a cave.
Abraham arose early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the L‑rd. He looked over the face of Sodom and Gomorrah and over the entire face of the land of the plain, and he saw, behold, that the smoke of the earth was rising like the smoke of a furnace.
Believing that “there is not a man left alive on the earth to come in to us after the manner of all the earth,” the daughters of Lot get their father drunk (“drunk as Lot”) and lie with him, both becoming pregnant. Their respective sons, Moab (“from father”) and Ben-Ami (“son of my people”), father the two nations of Moab and Ammon.
The Birth of Isaac
Abraham’s journeys take him southward to the Negev, to Gerar, in the territory controlled by Avimelech, king of the Philistines. Here Abraham and Sarah experience a replay of what happened to them in Egypt: Sarah is presented as Abraham’s sister; she is taken to Avimelech’s palace; a plague breaks out in the palace, and Avimelech has a dream in which he is warned, “You are a dead man, because of the woman whom you have taken, for she is a man’s wife.” Sarah is returned, untouched, to Abraham with much apologies and gifts from the repentant king.
Then, exactly one year after the three angels visited Abraham and Sarah and delivered G‑d’s promise that a son shall be born to them (as related at the beginning of the Parshah),
G‑d remembered Sarah as He had said, and G‑d did to Sarah as He had spoken.
Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the set time of which G‑d had spoken to him.
The boy is named Yitzchak (“will laugh”), because, as Sarah declared, “G‑d has made laughter for me, so that all who hear will laugh with me.”
Abraham circumcised his son Isaac when he was eight days old, as G‑d had commanded him. Abraham was one hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.
The Torah then tells of a great feast that Abraham made “on the day that Isaac was weaned.”
The Banishment of Hagar and Ishmael
Abraham already has a son, Ishmael, born 14 years earlier to Hagar, the Egyptian maid whom Sarah had urged him to marry in her barren years. As had been predicted, Ishmael grows to become “a wild man, his hand against every man, and every man’s hand against him.” Sarah, fearing Ishmael’s negative influence upon her son, urges Abraham to “banish this maidservant and her son, for the son of this maidservant shall not be heir with my son, with Isaac.”
Abraham is reluctant to do so until G‑d intervenes, telling him: “In all that Sarah says to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac shall your seed be called.”
Abraham rose up early in the morning, and took bread and a bottle of water, and gave it to Hagar, putting it on her shoulder, and the child, and sent her away. She departed, and wandered in the wilderness of Be’er Sheva.
Their water, however, runs out quickly in the desert heat, and soon Ishmael is faint with heat and thirst. Hagar
threw the child under one of the shrubs. She went off . . . the distance of a bowshot, for she said, “Let me not see the death of the child.” She sat opposite him, and lifted up her voice and wept.
G‑d opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water, and she went and filled the bottle with water and gave the lad to drink.
G‑d was with the lad, and he grew; he dwelt in the wilderness, and became an archer. He dwelt in the wilderness of Paran, and his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.
The Covenant with Avimelech
Avimelech, the king of the Philistines, who had earlier offered Abraham to settle in his country, now comes seeking a covenant of peace with the Hebrew. “G‑d is with you in all that you do,” says the king; let us swear to each other that neither of us will show hostility to the other or the other’s offspring.
Abraham agrees, and gives Avimelech seven sheep as a testimony to the resolution of a past controversy between them over a well that Abraham had dug. The place is thus named Be’er Sheva (“Well of the Oath” and “Well of the Seven”).
Abraham establishes an eshel (wayside inn) at Be’er Sheva, where he “called in the name of the L‑rd, the G‑d of the world.”
It came to pass, after these things, that G‑d tested Abraham. He said to him: “Abraham!”
And he said: “Here I am!”
And He said: “Please, take your son, your only son, the one whom you love, Isaac; and go away to the land of Moriah, and offer him there for a burnt offering upon one of the mountains, of which I will tell you.”
Abraham rose up early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son, and broke up the wood for the burnt offering, and rose up and went to the place of which G‑d had told him.
Then, on the third day, Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar. Abraham said to his young men: “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go over there and worship, and come again to you.”
Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife; and both of them went together.
Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.”
And he said: “Behold the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”
Abraham said: “G‑d will provide Himself a lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” And both of them went together.
They came to the place of which G‑d had spoken to him, and Abraham built the altar there and arranged the wood, and he bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.
An angel of G‑d called to him out of heaven, and said: “Abraham! Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am!”
And he said: “Do not stretch forth your hand to the lad, nor do the slightest thing to him, for now I know that you are a G‑d-fearing man, and you did not withhold your son, your only one, from Me.”
Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw, and behold there was a ram, [and] after [that] it was caught in a bush by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.
Abraham called the name of that place Adonai-Yireh (“G‑d will see”), as it is said to this day: “On the mountain G‑d will appear.”
Vayeira concludes with report of a granddaughter born to Abraham’s brother Nachor, named Rebecca (destined to become Isaac’s wife).