Parshat Va-Yayra Genesis 18:1 - 22:24                                        

In the second Torah portion about Abraham, God appears – in Hebrew “va-yera” – to Abraham in the guise of three strangers. Abraham greeted his guests showing them remarkable hospitality. One of the strangers told that Sarah would become pregnant and give birth in a year. When Sarah overheard the statement, she laughed to herself because she was well past child-bearing age and Abraham was quite old as well. The three men then set off for Sodom. We hear God questioning whether or not to inform Abraham about the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Because God had chosen Abraham to be a role model of justice and righteousness, God decided to tell him. Abraham argued with God against such collective punishment. God listened and agreed to spare the cities if ten honest people can be found there. When it became clear that no one in the city was innocent, God’s decree remained in effect.

Two angels arrived in Sodom and were greeted at the city gate by Lot who urged them to accept his hospitality. They did so, but a mob of townspeople gathered at the house with the intent to harm both the guests and Lot. The guests saved themselves and Lot by striking the mob blind with a blinding light. The strangers then informed Lot that he and any of his family in the city must leave because they had been sent to destroy it. With the destruction imminent, the angels insisted that Lot and his family hurry but they delayed. Finally, the angels grabbed Lot, his two unmarried daughters and his wife, and brought them out of the city. They warned them not to look behind them as they left. Unfortunately, Lot’s wife did not obey. She looked back and was immediately turned into a pillar of salt. Lot and his two daughters fled to a cave. The two daughters, fearing that there were no other men left on earth, decided to have children with their father in order that the human race might continue.

Once again, Abraham tried to pass Sarah off as his sister, this time to King Avimelekh of Gerar. Again God protected Sarah, and Abraham and the king parted on good terms. As was promised, Sarah became pregnant. Abraham and Sarah had a son whom they named Isaac, and on the eighth day of his life he was circumcised. When Isaac grew up and was weaned and Abraham held a great feast in his honor. Sarah wanted Hagar and Ishmael thrown out of their home so that Ishmael would not have any part of Isaac’s inheritance. Abraham was very unhappy about this, but God told him to listen to Sarah. Hagar and Ishmael were cast out into the wilderness. Ishmael nearly died but his cry is heard; an angel reassured Hagar that Ishmael would live to become a great nation. God decided to test Abraham and commanded him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham prepared to do this, but just as he raised his hand to carry out the sacrifice, an angel called out for him to stop. Because of his willingness to obey God’s command, God repeated the promise of a great nation described as numerous as the stars in heaven and the sands of the seashore.


  • The parasha opens with the verse, “And God appeared to Abraham (Genesis 18:1).” Nothing else is said in the Torah text about this appearance. The Talmud explains that the God visited Abraham on the third day after Abraham’s circumcision in order to ask about Abraham’s health. The Talmud uses this interpretation to teach us the basis for the mitzvah of bikur cholim, – visiting the sick. The Rabbis also taught that a visit to the sick takes away 1/60th of the illness. A second mitzvahhaknasat orchim, welcoming the stranger, also has its basis in this parasha. Tradition teaches that Abraham kept an open doorway on each side of his tent so that any passing stranger would know that he or she was welcome to enter. Rashi identifies the lad who helped Abraham prepare the food for the three visitors as Ishmael. Rashi explains that Abraham involved his son in the doing of this mitzvah in order to teach it to him.

  • God told Abraham that Sarah had laughed at the thought that she would bear a child at her advanced age. Abraham questioned Sarah about this, but she denied that she had laughed. Notice that God changed Sarah’s words: God told Abraham that she had laughed due to her age and not because Abraham was old (which is what she said in her original statement). This was to prevent Abraham from getting angry with Sarah. The women’s Yiddish commentary to the Torah, Tzenah Ur’enah, teaches that it is from this story that the Sages learned that for the sake of shalom bayit, a peaceful home and family harmony, a harmless lie is allowed.

  • Jewish history, specifically during times of persecution, has looked to the Akeidah – the near sacrifice of Isaac – for inspiration. But there is yet another – and almost radical – perspective on this story. The S’fat Emet, Judah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur (1847-1905), suggests that the Akeidah was a test of Abraham’s fear of God, and not of his love for God – and hence the Abraham of the Akeidah was on a lower pedestal than he had been when his love was paramount. He sees ha-Makom (literally “The Place” but used in Rabbinic Hebrew as a euphemism for God) only from afar. It is a mere angel who stops Abraham’s hand, and after this incident he is no longer addressed personally by the Lord. Rashi was perhaps laying the foundations for the S’fat Emet when he suggests that Abraham did not really understand God correctly. After all, God did not say “slaughter your son”; what God did say was “lift up your son to the service of God.”

Some Thoughts and Questions

  1. Why was offering hospitality so important during Abraham’s time? Consider where Abraham lived (the desert), and how that might have influenced how he behaved. Based on the Commentary section, how did Abraham teach the mitzvah of haknasat orchim to Ishmael? What mitzvah did Lot perform that enraged the people of Sodom? Who might he have learned the mitzvah from? In what ways was Abraham fulfilling the special roles which God had assigned to him and his descendants? Whose hospitality is better, Lot’s or Abraham’s? 

    Think of the various ways in which you can welcome a newcomer. Describe a mitzvah that you have learned from another family member. Identify this person and explain how they taught you thismitzvah.

  2. While we are taught that lying is wrong, in the Commentary section it seems that a “white lie” is allowed if it will preserve shalom bayit, family harmony. What do you think about this? Are there circumstances when a lie is acceptable? To your knowledge has this ever occurred in your family? What happened? In what ways are you responsible for shalom bayit in your family?

  3. Abraham faced two situations in relation to his sons in this parasha. Robert Alter provides us with a fascinating insight into the parallels between the two stories. In Genesis 21, Ishmael is banished into the wilderness with his mother Hagar. He faces a life-threatening trial – near collapse due to thirst. Isaac also faces a life-threatening trial in which he nearly sacrificed by his own father. In both cases, the boys are saved when an angel of God calls out a critical moment. Can you find more connections between the two accounts? What is the locale of each of them? What are the feelings of the parents? … of the boys? Are there life-threatening tests which young people face in our society today (learning to drive, the draft, going to school in a dangerous neighborhood, etc.)?

  4. Sarah is rebuked for laughing. In our last Torah portion, Abraham laughs, but is not rebuked. Is there a difference in their laughter?

  5. In Chapter 18, there is an apparent indication that Abraham did not follow the kashrut law concerning mixing milk and meat. How do you explain this?

  6. Why does Abraham “bargain” with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, but not about that of Isaac? For traditional Jews, the Akeidah, read every day, is the perfect example of faith. How do you deal with the story?