Yom Rishon, 16 AdarI 5781
Sunday, 28 February 2021
Parashat Vayera 2012

Parashat Vayera by Rabbi Daniela Thau
2 November 2012

Va-yera – And Adonai was made visible to him…

This is the next chapter in the story of the Jewish people - the announcement through three mysterious men of the impending birth of Isaac. It is the continuation of the story of the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people which began in last week’s Sidra when God not only changed both Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah but also told Abraham that Sarah would bear a son called Isaac with whom God promised to maintain an everlasting covenant through his offspring. (Gen.17:1-22). The bare bones of the story are the age of both, Abraham 100 years old and Sarah 90, and that both Abraham and Sarah laughed at the announcement of the birth of a son to them.

The classical interpretation of this text is that we should never underestimate the power of God to influence what happens to mankind. I would like to unpack the story and put a different spin on things.

This weeks Parasha opens with the words:

The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him….1·

Already in the first two verses we meet some challenges to our comprehension. What are terebinths and how exactly did Adonai appear?

In the Bible the term Terebinth is often used to translate ‘elah’ or ‘elon’ as here in our Parasha ‘elonei Mamre’. We should picture a tree similar to an oak. This verse is the mood setter for the ensuing story. It was hot and Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent under the trees where earlier in Genesis we are told he built an altar. And then three men appeared out of nowhere. These three men are usually referred to as angels in our commentaries. According to Rashi (11th cent.) quoting Bereshit Rabba (middle of 1st century) these three men all have a role to play - one to announce the birth of Isaac, one to destroy Sodom and one to heal Abraham because one angel does not do two errands. The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is another topic in this Parasha.

The midday heat may have led Abraham to see an apparition but the central point is the announcement of the birth of his son. In his heat dream we see Abraham perform traditional middle-eastern hospitality.

The text tells us that Sarah ‘had stopped having the periods of women’ and that she laughed at the idea of being pregnant.

I would like to advocate that firstly the ages of 100 and 90 years are not to be taken too literally. It is quite possible that Sarah was perimenopausal and experienced intermittent periods. As we know, it is often in this phase that women conceive and have another baby or even their first. Also at the time of the announcement Sarah may have already been pregnant and mistook having no periods as a definite sign of menopause.

The story tells us that Sarah listened behind the door and laughed to herself at the thought of being pregnant. Again, looking at this story with different eyes I would like to interpret it in another way. Abraham was dreaming in the midday sun, Sarah felt changes in her body which might have been menopausal but her intuition told her that she might also be pregnant.· She chuckled to herself as she tried to tell her husband about these changes and the possibility that she may be pregnant.

Our Bible stories often make use of anthropomorphism, giving a divine being human form. Here in our story we have the three angels appearing as men, conveying the message of the arrival of a baby. So a possible scenario is: Abraham in the hot midday sun has an apparition of three men arriving at his tent. At the same time Sarah having within herself realised that she is pregnant tries to convey this to her husband in an embarrassed, laughing manner but actually never really manages to tell him outright – it is more like a silent conversation between a couple that has been together for such a long time and have near perfect communication. Abraham for his part, as a good middle-eastern host, shows his three guests the customary hospitality while Sarah’s innermost thoughts, her still inner voice, and intuitions are brought out into the open. Through the medium of the angels, the impending birth of Isaac is communicated.

We need not be an Abraham or a Sarah to have angels appear and have visions. If we surround ourselves from time to time with an atmosphere that promotes silence and quiet, we also may be able to hear our innermost thoughts, our still voice, speak to us.· I would like to call this the divine spark that is in all of us and we only need to give ourselves space and time to listen to it. If you want, we all are visited by angels at times, we may even feel them within us – we only need to be in touch and trust our innermost thoughts and feelings.

1 Translation: The Torah (UAHC)