October 16, 2013
At the very beginning of this weeks sedra we read:
1. Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot. א. וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהֹוָה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם:
On which Rashi comments:
And [the Lord] appeared to him: to visit the sick (Tan. Buber, Vayera 1). Said Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina: It was the third day from his circumcision, and the Holy One, blessed be He, came and inquired about his welfare (B. M. 86b).
The obvious question is how did Rashi know? Where is the clue in the actual words of the verse. It doesn’t explicitly say so. Isn’t this a Darash rather than the simple peshat that Rashi promised to tell us?
Of course, it isn’t Darash and Rashi has not abandoned his brief for a second. Rashi is teaching us that sometimes one has to be aware of what the verse doesn’t say as much as what the verse does say!
Also, one has to consider the alternatives. For what reason did the Lord appear to Avraham?
It cannot be to tell him the good news that he is going to have a son for He sent one of the three angels disguised as travellers to tell him that.
Perhaps, you will argue, that it was to tell him about the destruction of Sodom and therefore that his nephew Lot was in danger but this was interrupted by the visit of the travellers and picked up later.
But, that cannot be so. For we read later in verse 17:
And Hasem said, Shall I hide from Avraham what I am doing….? That is to say, that HaShem only decided later to tell that news to Avraham.
So, in our opening verse HaShem appears to Avraham as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day and says NOTHING. It is this lack of communication to which Rashi is sensitive. Why would you visit somebody and say nothing?
Only to see how they are or just merely to be with them in their hour of pain or trouble. In fact, there is a little known law and less practiced that when you make a shiva visit you are not allowed to OPEN the conversation. You have to wait to be spoken to. This is very difficult for many people today who seem to need to communicate at every moment!
But, here, at the opening verse of our Sedra, HaShem appears to Avraham, not to engage him in conversation but “merely” to be with him, to see how he was.
This lack of communication is the basis for Rashi’s comment. The great Rashi, who not only explains what is written in the Torah but also what is not written in the Torah!
A little later in this week’s sedra, we read than when the Matriarch Sarah received the prophecy that in a year’s time she would have a son, she reacted by laughing.
12. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying, “After I have become worn out, will I have pleasure? And also, my master (Avraham) is old.” יב. וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה לִּי עֶדְנָה וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן:
Apparently, HaShem was displeased at her reaction.
13. And the Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Is it really true that I will give birth, although I am old?’ יג. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל אַבְרָהָם לָמָּה זֶּה צָחֲקָה שָׂרָה לֵאמֹר הַאַף אֻמְנָם אֵלֵד וַאֲנִי זָקַנְתִּי:
So much so that Sarah became frightened and denied that she laughed!
But wait a moment! Didn’t we read, at the end of last weeks sedra of Lech Lecha, that Avraham Avinu, on receiving the exact same news from HaShem, reacted in exactly the same way, with laughter……?
יז. וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם שָׂרָה הֲבַת תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד:
ויפל אברהם על פניו ויצחק: זה תירגם אנקלוס וחדי, לשון שמחה, ושל שרה לשון מחוך. למדת שאברהם האמין ושמח, ושרה לא האמינה ולגלגה. וזהו שהקפיד הקב”ה על שרה ולא הקפיד על אברהם:
( I’m having trouble cutting and pasting so ill translate this bit myself!)
Verse 14. And Avraham fell on his face and laughed and said in his heart, ” shall a child be born to a 100 year old man? And shall Sarah, a 99 year old woman give birth?
Rashi to verse 14.
And Avraham fell on his face, and laughed. Onkelos translated Vachadi and rejoiced ( associated with the Hebrew Chedva. MW) an expression of joy. Whereas with Sarah (onkelos used) Machoch ( mocked, laughed in derision) . To teach you that Avraham believed and rejoiced whereas Sarah did not believe and scorned. That is why the Holy One, blessed be He was annoyed with Sarah and not with Avraham.
By looking in Onkelos, the oldest Aramaic translation of the Bible, dating from the time of the Mishna, Rashi has solved our question.
But hold on, I hear you asking. How did Onkelos know that? It’s the same verb לצחוק to laugh. How did Onkelos know to translate it differently?
A simple answer is that, there are indeed different types of laughter. One can laugh out loud in joy. And we can all recognise sarcastic, derisive laughter.
But here again, the clue is in Rashi! We must always pay attention to the way Rashi quotes the verse.
Rashi didn’t merely, as he could have, quoted the verb “laughed”; after all, that is the word that he isexplaining.
Not satisfied with that, here he quoted the first part of the verse. Avraham fell on his face before HaShem. You do not prostate yourself in front of HaShem and then laugh at him mockingly! Hence, the laugh was of simcha.
Whereas, Sarah, did not prostrate but rather “laughed” inwardly and was ashamed when challenged on it.
Now Rashi has taught us to look closely, very closely at the context of the word which Onkelos translated and which he, Rashi, is explaining.