Sunday, January 16, 2022

At first blush, the link between Parshat Vayeira and its haftarah seems to be in the second section, with the unexpected birth of a child to a heretofore barren woman. Were this the only connection, the first eight verses of the haftarah would be unnecessary. Those first verses are included to highlight a deeper connection with the parsha.

The first eight verses of the haftarah deal with the prophet Elisha aiding a woman, traditionally identified as the widow of the prophet Obadiah, who is beset by creditors threatening to enslave her sons. Elisha instructs her to take a small cruse of oil behind closed doors and from it fill as many vessels as she can acquire. The small vessel, in defiance of the laws of nature, is able to produce a continuous flow of oil. The oil only ceases to flow when the availability of containers ceases. This is of course a revealed miracle. It is an open display of Hashem’s superiority over what would be considered the natural order. Yet, rather than publicize this occurrence, Elisha instructs that it occur in secret.

The first eight verses are intended to focus on the element of concealment in the remainder of the haftarah. Elisha in his journeys was given food and shelter by a Shunamite woman. Wanting to repay her kindness, he promises her that she will have a child within the year. This, of course, parallels the story in the parsha of the angelic visitors promising Sara that by the same time next year she would bear a son. In the course of the haftarah, the Shunamite woman’s son dies. The woman rushes to Elisha for help. He in turn hurries to the child’s side, closes the door to the room, and resurrects the child. Yet another revealed miracle that is purposely hidden away.

We should now turn back to Vayeira and consider that it also has miraculous events hidden in plain sight. The first concealed miraculous event is obvious. The angels arriving at Avraham’s tent appear as common travelers. Their divine character is at first hidden from Avraham as it is later hidden from Lot. The well from which Hagar will drink is also hidden. The most miraculous event in the parsha is, of course, that a 90-year-old woman, who never before had a child, gives birth. The Torah treats it rather nonchalantly. The parsha simply says: “And Hashem remembered Sarah as He said, and Hashem did for Sarah as He had spoken. And she conceived and Sarah bore to Avraham a son in his old age…” (21: 1-2). At this point Sara’s age is not even mentioned.

In English, we refer to events that are inexplicable and contrary to natural law as miracles. In Hebrew these events are referred to as a “nes.” The word has the meaning of banner, or flag or sign. We refer to miraculous events as such because they are a sign to us of Divine intervention. Events trumpeting the existence and presence of Hashem in the world are in fact daily occurrences. Indeed, when we recite the Modim section of the Shemoneh Esrei we thank Hashem for “miracles that are with us each day and for Your wonders and Your goodness that occur at every moment, evening, morning and afternoon.” We thank Hashem for those miracles, those signs of His existence and benevolence, that we take for granted. We thank Him, essentially, for the smooth running of the universe, for the events that some say happen simply as a result of the laws of nature. These laws of nature are, of course, themselves His handiwork.

The haftarah seeks to focus our attention on the fact that wondrous events are frequently concealed. It is not just the arrival of angels and a 90-year-old woman being rejuvenated that should attract our attention. Miracles, signs of Hashem’s involvement in our lives, are daily events that we take for granted and thus overlook. The birth of a child to any woman is miraculous. Hashem hides His miraculous involvement in our lives just as Elisha ordered the unnatural events of the haftarah hidden away. Our obligation is not just to parse out the words of the Torah to find Hashem, but to see the signs, the “nisim,” of His involvement in our daily lives. Women give birth every day, angels walk among us every day, and every day Hashem performs signs and wonders and goodness for us.

The conjunction of the haftarah and the parsha is intended to focus our attention on Hashem’s visitation not just in lives of Avraham and Sarah, but in the lives of each and every one of their descendants, “at every moment, evening, morning and afternoon.”

William S.J. Fraenkel received a Bachelor of Arts in religion and a law degree from NYU, and served as a board member and officer of several Orthodox shuls. The opinions expressed in this dvar Torah are solely his own.

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