This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein in Z’chus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Miriam Liba Bas Devora
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamah of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
Each Parshah HaShevua is accompanied by a different section from the Nevi’im (Book of the Prophets) that is read each Shabbos after Krias HaTorah in the segment of prayer services known as the weekly “Haftarah” (lit., parting).
Although the Gemara already references the existence of the Haftarah concept for special Shabbosos, it is not entirely clear when and why the reading of the weekly Haftarah was originally instituted. While Avudraham suggests that the weekly Haftarah was instituted as a “consolation” reading intended to substitute for the regular Krias HaTorah during times of religious persecution when Torah reading was forbidden, R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch suggests that Haftarah was instituted to combat false sects of Judaism who did not consider Nevi’im as being part of the Holy Scriptures.
In any event, whether to supplement or a compliment the Parshah HaShevua, each Haftarah was selected by our spiritual leaders (whether by Chazzal or by the later Savora’im and/or Gaonim), most often to serve as some sort of reflection on that particular Krias HaTorah (with few exceptions).
Our goal for now will be to understand our weekly Sidrah through those reflections by uncovering the deeper connections between the themes of the Parsha HaShevua and the themes of each Parshah’s corresponding reading from the Nevi’im.
הַפְטָרָה ֺשֶל פַּרָֺשַת וַיֵּרָא
“Ma’aseh Avos; Paths of Parenthood”
Parshas Vayeira’s Haftarah selection is the first from Bereishis to feature any narratives (as opposed to Haftaros for Bereishis through Lech Lecha which only feature “lyrical” prophecies). And this particular reading, taken from Melachim Beis [4:1-37], tells us not just one, but two stories that took place in the times of Elisha, the prophet and disciple of Eliyahu HaNavi.
In the first story [4:1-7], we’re told of a poor widow who comes crying to Elisha that the creditor she is indebted to is approaching to take her two sons as slaves. Elisha performs a Chanukah-like miracle by making her oil supply increase to fill up every last jug she owned so that she could pay off the creditor and allow her and her sons to survive on the remainder of the oil.
In the subsequent story [4:8-37], by stark contrast, we’re told, of this wealthy woman from the city of Shuneim, whom we shall refer to as the Shunamis (woman of Shuneim). Unlike the widow who perhaps had no means, the Shunamis would not only host Elisha for meals but she built a special apartment in her attic for him to stay in as he frequently traveled through the area. By further contrast to the widow who did not have a husband but had two children, the Shunamis has a husband, but no children at all. That would all change after Elisha blesses the Shunamis that she should have a child in the coming year. By even further contrast to the widow whose children were only about to be in harm’s way but were saved, the child of the Shunamis actually dies. Only at the end of the Haftarah, Elisha miraculously restores the child to life and returns him to his mother.
The question is what this Haftarah tells us about Parshas Vayeira? But, firstly, we have to ask: What does it have to do with anything discussed in Vayeira?
And at first glance, there are a lot of obvious connections between this Haftarah and the contents of Vayeira, for example, both feature stories about emissaries of G-d promising barren but hospitable people that they would have children. Certainly, one of the most famous scenes of Vayiera is Avraham’s hosting of the angels at his tent when he’s given such news. Another interesting connection is that in both of those stories, the miracle-baby’s life ends up at risk when he’s older, and it is not until the emissary from G-d returns that the child is saved. Indeed, the other most famous scene in Vayeira is that of the Akeidah (lit., Binding) when Hashem commanded Avraham to offer his son Yitzchak and seemingly slaughter his son. It was only when the angel of G-d returned and stopped Avraham that Yitzchak was spared.
But is that all? Are there other fundamental connections? And even if there are more connections, more importantly, what do those connections mean? What do those connections suggest is the takeaway from Parshas Vayeira?
The real question we have to consider is what Parshas Vayeira is really about. So as far as Vayeira is concerned, like most of the Parshiyos early on in Sefer Bereishis, the plain content is about the “Ma’aseh Avos,” the events of our forefathers, now focusing on Avraham Avinu. But even further—looking at the whole Sidrah through, there is a focus on the spiritual and emotional roller coaster that different individuals experience in the process of conceiving, raising, and caring for his or her children. We will refer to these experiences as the paths of parenthood.
If we put the Haftarah under the microscope for minute, we might notice that the stories of Elisha with the poor widow and with the wealthy Shunamis do not only thematically resemble various aspects of Vayeira, but they most conspicuously demonstrate these emotional and spiritual paths of parenthood.
In particular, the poor woman with children and no husband might remind us of two stories in Vayeira. On the one hand, we have the lonely Hagar, wandering in the desert with no water for her dying son. And yet, even earlier, we have a story of the endangered Lot in Sodom, who like the widow, has two children whom he also is about to give up to the authorities, in Lot’s case, his two daughters whom he disturbingly offers to the mob in attempt to protect his guests. Both Hagar and Lot prepare to witness their seed “taken” before her eyes and perhaps lose her own life in the process.
But now, tripled with the similar story of Elisha and the widow, we see an apparent pattern as in all three of these scenarios, the parent relies on the pure mercy of another party, a messenger of G-d and merits not their own to get them and their children out of harm’s way. Hagar and Lot are rescued by an angel of G-d, and the poor widow is rescued by a prophet of G-d. Hagar’s child is saved because Hashem promised Avraham that he would be, and Lot is saved, as well, in his uncle Avraham’s merit. Even the widow’s only claim before Elisha was that her late husband was a G-d-fearing prophet. We hear nothing about her personal worth.
And in all three stories, although the child is spared, and in turn, the parenthood is somewhat intact, no one leaves completely unscathed from the turmoil. After Lot offers his daughters as bait for a lawless mob, he loses his wife, his sons, sons-in-law, and to top it off, he and his daughters ultimately engage in shameful cohabitations. Hagar tosses her son out of sight to avoid personal and emotional pain and her son grows up to be a morally debased idolater and murderer. The widow of the Haftarah barely survives financially with her sons on the thread of a miracle in the form a few jugs of oil. She’s guaranteed no further relief other than she would “live off the remainder” of oil which she had left after paying off her debts.
On the other hand, we have a second school of parents who are not immediately blessed with children. The Shunamis, like Avraham Avinu, lacks a child. However, none of them rely on the merits of others. As we’ve mentioned, they each hospitably welcome in guests for no other purpose than to serve others. Consequently, each of their emissaries from G-d—whether an angel or the prophet Elisha—simply comes to inform them of the good news; that a child is on the way. Some would argue that their careful hospitality was what earned them the miracle of fertility, for, as my brother R’ Daniel Eisenberg puts it, “If who have people in your house, you will be Zocheh (meritorious) to have people in your house.” The concept can be understood as such that the sensitive hospitality demonstrates the readiness and caring that is necessary to raise children under one’s roof.
What’s more is that even when both of these parents, Avraham and the Shunamis, find their respective child’s life hanging in the balance, the emissary of G-d hastily intervenes in the nick of time in response to the righteousness which each of these parents demonstrated. The child would be spared from all harm.
Now, the question is what are we to make of all of this; the connections, the contrasts, etc. What does it all suggest?
The three former cases of Lot, Hagar, and the poor widow, each in their own way, do not seem to portray the parent in the best light. Most conspicuously, and again, most disturbingly, Lot does not seem to put any effort into protecting his daughters. But even Hagar needs to be told by the angel not to leave her son dying by a bush—just because she can’t bear to watch—and he has to tell her to go back to her child and care for him.
But even the seemingly innocent, poor woman, is not portrayed in the best way. Despite being the widow of a prophet, for some reason, Hashem allowed her to end up poor and alone so that her children would be at risk. So, even while we don’t see any action of fault from her, we see a woman who has neither the money nor the merits to provide for her children, and if she doesn’t deliver, her children will be taken away.
Now, while it is true that each of the children end up surviving, the question is: At what cost? Why did the parents’ have to undergo such pain and trauma?
The answer to this question might be connected to a deeper question, namely: What does it take to be a good and successful parent?
Perhaps it means being someone who protects his child no matter what happens, and we might say that Lot didn’t get that far at all. Does it mean that you love your child so much, that you are unable to bear the sight of anything bad happening to your child? That’s probably not it, because Hagar didn’t want to watch her child die—no one wants to—and she still needed work in her parenting. Perhaps it means going all the way and doing anything one can for his or her child. But again, the poor widow tried, but she just did not have the means to provide for her children until someone else came to her aid, and the same would be true for anyone who unfortunately does not have the means. And what can you do when you just don’t have the means?
So, what is the secret?
Both Avraham Avinu and the Shunamis were not even fertile before they figured it out, but to be the best kind of parent means to be the best possible Eved Hashem (servant of G-d) that one can be in one’s own right, to be the kind of person whose righteous actions on behalf of others speak for themselves. That is what Avraham and the Shunamis had in common. That was their priority. And it could be, if that is one’s priority, one will be able to conceive even if he has not thus far. If that is one’s priority, perhaps he will merit a much needed miracle for his child when “nature” turns things for the worst. If that is one’s priority, perhaps other people connected to him will be blessed in his merit.
Certainly, Lot, Hagar, and the widow benefitted somewhat for being connected to righteous individuals. And of course, being connected to the Avos, as each of us are, can be of benefit, but the question is how far the merits of others, merits which are not our own, can ultimately reach? How much will we have to undergo if all we’re relying on is the righteousness of others? Avraham and the Shunamis did not have “Zechus Avos,” the way we understand it, merits of their parents. They had Zechus for being good parents, even before they were parents! They were righteous, sensitive, and caring people who did not only care about themselves.
So, yes, having good parents—being associated with the Avos or other righteous people is a good connection to have, but it’s limited, as it is only that a “connection.” Lot, Hagar, and the poor widow can all tell you that.
It is when one emulates the truly pure and righteous “Ma’aseh Avos,” the deeds of the fathers, that one can latch onto the “Zechus Avos,” the merits of the fathers, and make them his own that he can bear and enjoy the fruits of his labor for years to come without worrying what the cost will be. In the end of the day, it will be in those merits that one can successfully lead life on a successful path of parenthood.
May we all be Zocheh to become truly sensitive Ovdei Hashem and thereby be good parents for our children, truly make the Zechus Avos our own and merit the love and sensitive parenting from Avinu SheBaShamayim as He redeems us from all harm, once and for all, with coming of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Josh, Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂