Gidon Rothstein

Five Rashis A Week, Parshat Vayera

A project in memory of Baruch Leib HaKohen ben Mordechai Yidel ve-Dobba Chaya.

As a friend noted, there is so much richness in this week’s parsha; I have tried to pick Rashis a bit off the road, undernoticed but still with what to teach us about how to handle our lives.

Building Our Relationships, and Others’

In verse 18;9 the angels ask Avraham where Sarah is. Most obviously, they want both members of the infertile couple there for the announcement that their long hopes for a child will soon be fulfilled. Rashi notes a view that the angels also asked Sarah as to Avraham’s whereabouts, to teach us to ask our hosts about their spouses, husband about wife and vice verse.

He doesn’t explain further, but the next opinion he cites, from Baba Metzia 87a, presents their question as a way to bring Sarah’s modesty, her sitting in the tent, to Avraham’s attention. Perhaps many today would be struck by that version of modesty, and wonder whether we should see that as a positive in our times.  I was attracted to this Rashi more because of what it says about how to foster good relationships.

Telling us to ask a man about his wife as an excuse for to bring her good qualities to his attention suggests that maybe that’s the reason for the first idea as well. In asking each about the other, we draw their attention to each other, fostering involvement, and involvement (generally) contributes positively to a relationship.

That makes two points we might not always realize: 1) keeping our spouses in mind is important to a relationship, and 2) part of being a good guest is doing whatever we can to contribute to our hosts’ well-being, marital and otherwise.

The Role of the Righteous in Saving a City

In Avraham’s attempt to save Sodom and its nearby cities, he first asks, 18;24, that God save the cities if there are fifty righteous people. The text does not clarify the role of these fifty or why that was the number Avraham chose.  Rashi assumes fifty translates into ten righteous for each city. He does not make the connection, but it seems obvious to me that this anticipates the concept of a minyan (which the Mishnah derives from the use of the word עדה regarding the spies). That would mean that the definition of a minimal עדה, community, is not limited to halachic contexts, that ten people represent a significant enough unit for various purposes. Including showing that a city is not irredeemable.

In verse 26, Hashem responds that if He finds fifty righteous in Sodom, he will save all the cities.  Rashi takes that to mean that even if it’s not ten in each city, but fifty in Sodom, that would be enough, since Sodom was the local metropolis. To me, this points at the righteous as being some kind of a force for good—evil as the cities may be, the presence of a minyan of good people could be enough to hope for a better future, making it possible to push off the destruction to give the righteous more time to turn the city around. Hashem goes Avraham one better, allowing for that core of good people to all be found in a central city, because they will influence the entire region (I wrote more about this in my book We’re Missing the Point).

One of the advantages of Rashi’s reading is that it explains why Avraham counted down from 50 to 45 to 30, etc.  The 45 was a question of whether nine in a city could be enough, with Hashem rounding out the minyan (in halachic terms, there are many views about how we might be able to make up for one missing member, turning nine into a minyan).  After that, Avraham was asking if four cities could be saved, even if the fifth could not, with forty righteous, and so on.  He could not be sure, because it might have been that a critical mass was necessary for this approach to work—if five cities have righteous in each (or in the central city), they can all be saved. But to say that thirty could save three or two could be saved by twenty was not obvious.

The story aside, Rashi is reminding us of the social dynamics of moving towards or away from goodness. For all that Scripture and tradition blame Lot for his choice of residence, Avraham seems to secure Hashem’s acquiescence to the idea that a place is not beyond hope as long as it has a small core of righteous people. We should not only strive to be those righteous people wherever we live, we should strive to find and support them, because they might be all that stands between us and receiving the justice we deserve.

Hiding Good Deeds

In 19;2, Lot asks the angels סורו נא, please turn aside, to his house.  Rashi brings Bereshit Rabbah 50;7’s comment that he was asking them to take a circuitous route to his house, so that other citizens of Sodom would not see what he was doing.  That is also why he reverses the order from 18;4, where Avraham insisted they wash their feet before entering his house, because some or all travelers worshipped that dust.

Lot needed an excuse if he was “caught” hosting these strangers. He had them leave their feet unwashed, so he could say they had arrived recently, minimizing his crime in the eyes of his fellow citizens.

His two strategies for avoiding the malign eyes of his fellow Sodomites confront us with a question of how we do or don’t feel pressured to shape our actions to meet the expectations of those around us: sometimes that makes us act more properly than otherwise, but Lot shows the effects of living where those around us have a lower standard, and we will feel uncomfortable being more moral or more religious than they are.

What good deeds are we embarrassed to do because of how others will see it?

Laughter and Its Extensions

21;9 says that Sarah saw Yishma’el being מצחק, mocking, in the ordinary English translation. Rashi notes verses elsewhere in Scripture that use this verb root to describe each of the three sins Jews are not allowed to transgress even to save their lives, alien worship, sexual immorality, and murder.

His point is that Yishma’el committed one or all of these, but it seems no coincidence that the root in question is צחק, laughter. Laughter has many positive values, but left unbridled, it can lead to any of these dire outcomes. It is particularly notable in the context where Rashi cites it, since Sarah’s son has just been named Yitzchak, a name that comes from that same root.

Our second Patriarch got his name because Sarah laughed, or because she knew the news of her late in life maternity would cause laughter in others. This Rashi opens the door to thinking about whether part of Yitzchak’s legacy was reminding us of both sides of the laughter puzzle, how it can be evidence of Hashem’s great bounty, sparking the right kind of laughter, or can lead us to what are, in some sense, the worst crimes Judaism can imagine.

As Star Wars taught us, the Force is neither good nor bad, it’s what we do with it. Maybe it’s ditto for laughter.

The Utility of Murkiness

In 22;2, Hashem tells Avraham to take Yitzchak and offer him up as a whole offering on one of the mountains.  Rashi calls our attention to two ambiguities: first, Hashem does not say “kill him” because that wasn’t the intent. Hashem wanted Avraham to bring him up (the same word in Hebrew as “offer him”) in order to offer him as a whole sacrifice. It was the readiness to do so that Hashem commanded Avraham to have, but He never actually said to do it.

Hashem did not tell Avraham which mountain, according to Rashi, as part of a general practice of only revealing information to the righteous where necessary, which increases their reward for following Hashem even when they do not know where it will lead.

On the other hand, two verses later, Rashi says Hashem waited three days to show the mountain to Avraham to avoid the claim that the Patriarch had been rushed into the Akedah, that if he had had time to think through what was happening, he never would have done it.

Not that most of us are in danger of having direct prophecies from Hashem, but these three together show that we can misunderstand Hashem because He is more exact in language than we stop to note, because Hashem sometimes wants to keep us in the dark, to offer us a chance for obedience in the face of uncertainty (and we hate uncertainty), or because Hashem wants to avoid being accused of pressuring us to obedience.

It serves Hashem’s purposes, but it can make our lives more difficult.  The better we go along, the closer to Avraham Avinu we will be.

Taking the lesser-trodden paths in this week’s Rashis, we found reminders of several roads to righteousness. First, part of being a good guest is helping the host have a good or better life (or marital relationship, but isn’t that the same thing?). Second, our social circles play a role in who we become—whether by providing righteous people from whom to learn and whom to imitate, whether by being surrounded by those who look down on our good deeds, or by being in an environment where laughter takes us down the wrong road.

Then we saw that even the best way to righteousness, following Hashem’s Word, comes with challenges of its own, challenges of clarity and of timing. With all that, Avraham found his way unerringly, a family legacy we can hope and rededicate ourselves to continuing.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.