Vayera: The True Legacy

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

This week’s parsha, Vayera, continues the story of Avraham and Sarah,
who have been promised a child, but who have not conceived together;
the text describes them both as elderly, but Avraham has had a son
with Hagar, Sarah’s servant. When our parsha opens, Avraham is sitting
in the door of his tent, on a hot day, when he sees three strangers
appear- he then runs to prepare food and refreshments for them. It
turns out that these three strangers are angelic messengers who
announce that Sarah will indeed have a child, but when Avraham greets
them and offers them hospitality, all he knows is that they are dusty
travelers.

So far, so good- we learn that Avraham is a man of hesed
[“loving-kindness”] and generosity, and we see this story as the
paradigm of hachnasat orchim, or the welcoming of visitors. However,
it’s important to see this story in the context of the end of the
previous parsha, in which Avraham was promised by God that he and
Sarah would have a child, and then Avraham re-dedicates himself to God
by circumcising himself and the men of his household. (Cf.
Bereshit/Genesis 17.) In fact, the angelic visitors are understood to
arrive shortly after Avraham’s circumcision, and are seen as
performing the mitzvah of bikkur holim, or visiting the sick.

Of course, if Avraham were still recovering from the circumcision, it
makes his commitment to hospitality and hesed that much more
praiseworthy, but at least one midrash [interpretive rabbinic
commentary] sees in this story a profound turning point in Avraham’s
life, connected to other themes in Bereshit. This midrash- quoted in
Bialik’s “Book of Legends” but from a much earlier source- inserts a
fantastic story into the text, right into the story of Avraham calling
out to his wife to get the men something to eat, after which he
himself goes to get a calf from the herd, which he then gives to his
servant to prepare.

The midrash I’m about to quote turns on the fact that the word for
“herd” is a collective noun- it is singular grammatically but means “a
bunch of cattle.” Thus, in verse 18:9, it says that Avraham “ran to
the herd,” but our midrash reads it to mean that Avraham “ran after
one herd animal.” So where did he run to? To a place which will
feature prominently in later stories:

” ‘And Avraham ran after the calf. . . ‘ The calf had run away from
Avraham and entered the cave of Machpelah. When Avraham entered after
it, he saw Adam and his mate lying on their couches, lamps burning
above them, with their bodies giving off a sweet odor. This is how
Avraham was eager to have the cave of Machpelah as a burying place.”

Machpelah, you may recall, is the burial cave that Avraham will buy at
the beginning of the next parsha when Sarah dies, and which becomes
the burial place of several generations of his descendants. However,
there is no mention in the Bible of Adam and Chava [Eve] being buried
there, and even less mention of Avraham having time for this adventure
between the time that the guests show up and his giving of the calf to
the servant later in the same verse – so what’s going on here?

One possibility is that by imagining Avraham having a vision of Adam
and Chava – the first parents of humankind- we are meant to understand
that Avraham and Sarah are about to become the first parents of the
Jewish people. It also strikes me that this midrash brings the theme
of death into a story about new life, thus perhaps suggesting that the
promise of a child has brought Avraham into a place of contemplation
about his own mortality – either because the child has not yet been
born, and thus Avraham is thinking of the finality of death without an
appropriate heir, or perhaps because he realizes that having the heir
means that someday he will, indeed, pass on the covenant to Yitzhak
after his death.

What I find most interesting about our midrash is the image of Adam
and Chava stretched out as if asleep, their bodies perfectly preserved
since the dawn of history. To me, the interpolation of this image into
the cave of Machpelah, where Avraham and his descendants will be
buried- and the whole midrash interrupting a narrative in which he
finds out that fatherhood is again imminent – suggests that Avraham
grows in his understanding of what is most significant in his life.
The image of Adam and Chava perfectly preserved in his future
ancestral burial grounds suggests that Avraham comes to understand
that what is “preserved” in a person’s life is their moral and
spiritual legacy across the generations.

To put it another way, Avraham wants his legacy of faithfulness to God
and hesed towards humankind to remain unspoiled in the lives of those
who come after him- wanting to buy the Machpelah is symbolic of his
yearning for a permanent legacy of giving spiritual life to his
descendants, comparable to the giving of physical life to humankind on
the part of Adam and Chava. Having “gone into the cave” – that is,
gone into the depths of his own being, where the meaning of his life
can be clarified and renewed- he is ready to return to his “guests,”
ready to hear the news he’s been waiting for, ready to be not just
Avraham, the great adventurer for God, but Avraham Avinu, Avraham our
Father, whose example of faith, courage, and generosity is the legacy
of all his children.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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