THOUGHT FOR PARSHAT VAYERA 5779
BY RABBI CHAIM FACHLER
We grew up knowing that Avraham and Sarah – the parents of the Jewish nation – were renowned for their hospitality and Chessed. They adopt Lot and his family and share with him their possessions. Even after Lot looks for greener pastures in the east, Avraham goes to war to save his ungrateful nephew. Our Parsha begins with three complete strangers experiencing such great hospitality from Avraham, even though it was shortly after his Brit. Sarah too plays her part. This is followed by Avraham trying in vain to save the inhabitants of the cities of Sdom and Amora. Basically, we read and learn from them so much in terms of how to treat others. Indeed, we are enjoined to emulate the high standards they set for us in our everyday life.
Except when it comes to Hagar and Yishmael!
At first sight, Sarah seems engulfed in jealousy, which maybe we can understand, given the circumstances. But when Avraham is told by HaShem to do as Sarah demands, whatever happened to the Chessed? To the famous hospitality? How could Avraham and Sarah wine and dine complete strangers, and then Avraham sends away his own flesh and blood with insufficient food and water?
In answer to this last question, Rashi is quick to point out that it is Hagar who shoulders the entire responsibility for her son Yishmael’s near death. Avraham supplied them with more than enough bread and water to make it to the next town. But Hagar quickly changed course, heading towards the idolatry of her father’s home. The next two verses [21:15-16] also show Hagar at her worst. She totally abandons Yishmael, who is only saved by HaShem’s miracle.
But the question remains: why did they need to be banished in the first place?
The Netziv explains that Sarah’s actions were motivated by her keen sense of responsibility for the untarnished continuity of the Jewish nation. She was very weary of the influence Yishmael would have on Yitzchak. Many years earlier, Avraham rightly parted from Lot, and Sarah knew that Yitzchak and Yishmael would also adopt very separate cultures – so the less time Yitzchak spent with Yishmael the better.
But the Netziv introduces another very important factor. As the Torah relates, Sarah became pregnant with Yitzchak directly after she and Avraham had left King Avimelech, who had been told by Avraham that Sarah was his sister, with the result that she was taken into the royal palace. There were those who would naturally presume that Sarah’s “miraculous” pregnancy after decades of barrenness resulted from her stay in Avimelech’s private quarters.
In fact, Sarah herself would have preferred to have become pregnant some time later to avoid this possible embarrassment, but it was part punishment by HaShem for her inappropriate reaction (laughter) to the news that she would be providing Avraham with his son and heir. Unless this rumour was proven to be unfounded, Sarah knew that Yitzchak would face relentless pressure from Yishmael and his descendants that he – Yishmael – was alone the rightful heir of Avraham. By persuading Avraham to banish Yishmael in favour of Yitzchak, they were sending a clear signal that Yitzchak was indeed Avraham’s real son, and not a result of any liaison with Avimelech.
Avraham failed to see this at first. But Sarah realised that when it comes to Jewish continuity, the traditional rules of “Chessed” and hospitality to others must be deferred.
And HaShem concurred!