Rabbi Aharon Greenberg
Canadian Director of the Seif Orthodox Union Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus
Compare and Contrast
Our Parsha, Parshat Vayera, is replete with so many obvious comparisons and stark contrasts. I will attempt to uncover some of its subtle but powerful messages.
When Avraham sojourns through the land to avoid a famine he ventures in Eretz Pelishtim and comes into contact with its king, Avimelech. Avraham hides the fact that he is married to Sarah and after being called into question as to why he concealed the fact that Sarah was really his wife, he tells Avimelech (20.11):
“וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם כִּ֣י אָמַ֗רְתִּי רַ֚ק אֵין יִרְאַ֣ת אֱ-לֹקים בַּמָּק֖וֹם הַזֶּ֑ה וַהֲרָג֖וּנִי עַל דְּבַ֥ר אִשְׁתִּֽי”
“I thought,” said Abraham, “surely there is no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife. Avraham contested to Avimelech, that he feared that in such a place there was no value placed on matrimonial relationships. I would like to begin by focusing on the names Avimelech and Avraham. Avimlech means ‘my father (the) king’ – perhaps to inform us that this is the only reason why he is king! He did nothing of value to deserve such a position. Furthermore, Avimelech is a very self-centered name, focusing inward on his own persona. Contrast this to the name Avraham. Avraham means, av hamon goyim, the father of many nations – a universal figure focusing on the other, outside of himself.
Now let us compare this to something we find later on in our parsha. We are told of a place where yirat Elokim, fear of G-d, does in fact exists. In the aftermath of the akeidah, we are told that it took place (22.14)
“וַיִּקְרָ֧א אַבְרָהָ֛ם שֵֽׁם הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא ה’ יִרְאֶ֑ה, אֲשֶׁר֙ יֵאָמֵ֣ר הַיּ֔וֹם בְּהַ֥ר ה’ יֵרָאֶֽה”
And Abraham named that site Adon-ai-yireh, whence the present saying, “On the mount of the L-RD there is vision.” Once again, this is in contrast to the location where Avimelech lived. Even Avraham’s personality is different, as we are told that Avraham himself is a G-d fearing person כִּֽי יְרֵ֤א אֱ-לֹקים֙ אַ֔תָּה
In a place where the fear of G-d, yirat Elokim does exist – Har Hamoriah, this is the place where Avraham demonstrated his fear of G-d by doing Hashem’s bidding. It is Avraham, in contrast to Avimelech, who possesses a fear of G-d.
The next series of contrasts is between Hagar and Avraham and how they deal with their children during a time of crisis and near death. Hagar and Yishmael are banished form the house of Avraham and, once their provisions run out, face a crisis. Hagar cannot bear to see her son suffer and she abandons him under the bushes since she cannot bear to hear him cry. When Avraham and Yitzchak ascend the mountain, Yitzchak seems to realize that there is no lamb to be slaughtered. While Avraham explains that perhaps Hashem will provide the lamb for them, it appears that Yitzchak is aware that he could very well be the sacrifice. Under such circumstances the Torah informs us that despite this mounting tension, וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם יַחְדָּֽו, they both walked together. In the moment of crisis, the parent and child, father and son, Avraham and Yiztchak, drew close and bonded over the crisis. They interacted and connected.
Contrast this to Hagar’s behavior which is one of silence, abandonment and despair. Avraham speaks with an optimistic tone ‘Hashem will show us the lamb my son,’ providing support comfort and compassion.
We, the children of Avraham Aveinu, are obligated to learn from his actions and persona. We need to see ourselves as serving the broad world, focusing on the other and their needs and interests. We can not abandon others, especially our children, when challenges arise and life deals us a curveball. Our optimism, care and compassion must prevail if we are going to ensure that we are part of, and worthy of, the great legacy of Avraham Aveinu, as part of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people.