Summary: VaYera is the 4th parasha in the Book of Bereishith and the second to focus on the life of Abraham and Sarah. It contains the last 4 ‘Tests of Faith’ Abraham endured and the Divine promise to make Abraham a great nation establishing his legacy and direct lineage.
The first Aliyah describes Abraham’s legendary hospitality offered to three Angels, how despite still recuperating from his circumcision, he ran to invite them into his tent to serve them a banquet of fresh meat and flat cakes. One of the Angels informed Sarah would bear a child. She laughed nervously, causing the Almighty to chide Abraham over her disbelief.
The second Aliyah carries on the Angel’s rebuke of Sarah for laughing. Perhaps offended by her denial, they abruptly continued on their mission. G-d and Abraham then entered an audacious ‘negotiation’ about the fate of the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah. Unable to find even 10 righteous men, the cities were slated for destruction and Abraham ‘returned to his place’.
The third Aliyah concerns Lot’s rescue. The avenging Angels arrived in Sodom at night, Lot pressed them to join for dinner where he prepared a ‘party with fresh-baked matzot’. No sooner had they gone to bed then an unruly mob surrounded Lot’s house and demanded the ‘men’ be handed over for immorality. Naively, Lot attempted to appease the crowd, offering them instead his 2 unmarried daughters. The Angels interceded, pulling Lot back into the house and striking the mob with temporary blindness.
Revealing plans to destroy the towns, they pressed Lot to escape. He tried to persuade his married daughters to leave but his son-in-laws made jest. (A shalsheletcantillation note emphasizes even Lot hesitated.) At day-break the Angels had to grasp the hands of Lot, his wife and their 2 unmarried daughters to flee the city, commanding them not to look back. Lot pleaded to re-settle in Mits’har, rather than to take refuge in the nearby mountains.
In the fourth Aliyah the destruction also claimed Lot’s wife who famously ‘looked back’ and turned into ‘a pillar of salt.’ While the family remnant fled to the mountains, the Torah adds that Abraham arose early and watched the plumes of smoke on the horizon. Fearing they were the only human survivors, Lot’s daughters conceived a plan to repopulate a desolate world through impregnation from their father. Moab and Amon were born.
Perhaps in shame, Abraham left the area and settled in Gerar in the Kingdom of Abimelekh, where again Sarah claimed to be his sister and again was abducted into the King’s harem. Visiting Abimelekh in a dream, G-d warned him of his crime, but Abimelekh protested innocence. Summoned to explain himself, Abraham confessed their lack of Fear of G-d made him fear for his life. Showered with gifts, Abraham and Sarah were invited to continue living in Gerar. Abraham prayed for their well-being and once again the people were ‘able to bear children’. The Aliyah ends with the birth of Isaac and his brit milah at 8-days old.
The fifth Aliyah begins happily with the weaning party held for Isaac but soon the painful scenario of Hagar and Ishmael’s banishment followed. Accused of making jest with Isaac, Sarah demanded Ishmael and his mother be expelled. Though troubled, Abraham was guided by G-d to follow Sarah’s wishes, along with the promise Ishmael would also become a great nation. Sent into the desert with only bread and a flask of water on her shoulder, mother & son lost their way and soon ran out of provisions. Hagar cried bitterly as Ishmael languished at the brink of death. An Angel appeared showing them an oasis. Hagar and Ishmael remained in the Pa’ran Desert where Ishamel married an Egyptian woman.
In the sixth Aliyah, Abimelekh and his general Phihol, visited Abraham to request a security oath that would span 3 generations. It was a token of Abraham’s gratitude for being allowed to live locally. Taking the oath, Abraham rebuked Abimelekhwhose servants had stolen Abraham’s wells. Abimelekh professed ignorance of the matter until Abraham set a covenant between them to prove the well of Be’ar Sheva was his uncontested. Abimelekh and his retinue left, Abraham planted a sacred tree and called out to G-d, residing in Philistine lands for many years.
The seventh Aliyah details Abraham’s final test, the Binding of Isaac (Akedat Yitshak). Commanded to take his son Isaac to a place which G-d would reveal, Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, took 2 lads and split-wood. On the third day he saw the distant place and instructed the lads to remain, continuing alone on foot with Isaac, the wood, a fire and a knife.
Asked by his son where was the sacrificial lamb, Abraham replied G-d would provide what was needed. When they arrived, Abraham built an altar, bound up Isaac, placed him on the altar and took the knife. An Angel of G-d called out and stayed his hand, revealing it was now known that by not withholding what was most precious to him, Abraham truly feared G-d. Finding a ram in a thicket, it was offered as a substitute for Isaac.
Abraham called the place the Mountain of G-d’s Fear. The Angel called out a second time from Heaven, blessing Abraham that his offspring would become prolific and be a source of blessing to all other nations. He went back to the lads and they returned to Be’ar Sheba. Parshat VaYera ends with an announcement that his brother Nahor’s wife bore 8 sons and concubine 4 more.
Comment: There is an extreme irony in Parshat VaYera. So many references to jesting, joking, making sport, and laughing occur that the child of a barren 90 year-old post-menopausal woman Sarah was named Yitshak (he laughed). And yet, Isaac’s life is anything but humorous. The only conversation between him and his parents recorded in the Torah occurs when Isaac and his father ascended the mountain. It is limited to a few words. ‘Father?’ asked Isaac, ‘I am here my son’ was Abraham’s response. Names in the Torah were intended to have meaning. I.e. Abraham (a father of many nations), Ishmael (G-d heard him), Noah (the comforter). So, where is the humour in Isaac?
Laughter can serve a multitude of purposes – some immediate and some longer-term. It can be used as much to chase away anxiety as to create happiness. Sarah’s laughter at hearing she would bear a child must have been the former. The mental leaps she would have had to make to roll back the clocks and imagine a time when she was still fertile suggests her laughter may have concealed the physical danger, personal trepidation and yet long-unfulfilled sense of joy. Laughter is meant to put us at ease, to point out the absurdity of our behaviour or beliefs, and sometimes just to lift our spirits.
Isaac’s birth proved that G-d’s Providence prevailed. The laws of nature shouldn’t have allowed it. Yet it was reminiscent of the quotation, ‘The difficult we do immediately, and the impossible takes a bit longer’. Isaac’s birth is a lesson that to the Almighty nothing is impossible. While the humour in Isaac’s name may not have been obvious during his lifetime, across the distance of time it can make us laugh.