Vayyera 2007: A Case of Dualities and Double Entendres

A Devar Torah I wrote for my (Jewish) dormitory. Special thanks to Marshall Lesack for encouraging me to write this (available in the link, and, below, unformatted)!A

Warning: You might want to read this message out loud.

One hot Shabbat morning in June, as people sat sweating and melting in their seats in schul, Rav Yitzchak Hertz began his usual schtick. People began to groan. “Here’s the rabbi again with his 45-minute Devar Torah,” grumbled the shamash. At this time, the congregation always made sarcastic remarks with a common sentiment that went along the lines of: just in case it wasn’t hard enough to stay conscious with the heat, now we have to listen to the longest most boring sermon delivered in the most incomprehensible Eastern European accent in the United States. But this Shabbat, things were different. It wasn’t only that people were tremendously self-conscious of how much they were schvitzing. There was something in what the rabbi was saying that sounded so unusual. First a curious murmuring mumble rose amidst the kahal’s impatient grumble. Then a whispering became more audible—more clear. In every pew, one Jew whispered to another, “Did you hear what the rabbi said!?” The second responded, “Yes! He’s talking about gynecologists!” People began asking, “Is this appropriate for schul?” “Why is the rabbi talking about gynecologists on the bimah!?” After the whispers, every ear perked up and listened to the words of the rabbi. They heard loud and clear from the European octegenarian: “Dis is de importance of gynecologists!” People listened closely. He spoke of “gynecologists in America.” He spoke of “gynecologists in Israel.” And he spoke of “gynecologists all over.” Their rebbe continued. But as their rebbe spoke, the congregants realized that, though gynecologists was an interesting topic, they couldn’t figure out what Rav Hertz was talking about. Nothing he was saying was adding up. They had an idea about what he meant when he mentioned “gynecologists and learning biology.” They still had an idea of what he meant when he mentioned “gynecologists and learning psychology.” But the whole congregation was lost when they heard, “gynecologists and learning astronomy.” Every pew filled with whispers. What was the Rav talking about? Does he not know what gynecologists do and what astronomers do? Finally, they figured out, as soon as Rav Hertz said, “And after high school, de kids should all be gynecologists,” this whole time he meant “going to colleges.”
It’s hard to speak clearly all the time, but when we express ourselves well, sometimes we can speak words that hold more truth than we can even imagine. In this week’s parashah, we are told of a great speaker—a speaker who speaks, not only on behalf of himself, but in deference to others. Parashat Vayyera begins with Avraham “sitting at the entrance of [his] tent as the day grew hot” (Genesis 18:1). The rabbis tell us that, at this point, Avraham is still recovering from his circumcision (it was after all only about four verses ago). But the rabbis must have seen our forefather as a spryly old man because as soon as he looks up and sees three men approaching him—despite the heat and despite the pains of circumcision (and despite the pains of being an advanced nonagenarian)—he gets up, runs over to them, and greets them. He says, “My lords, if it please you, don’t go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought, wash your feet, and recline under the tree. I’ll fetch a morsel of bread, and eat to your hearts’ desires; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way” (18:3-5). The rabbinic tradition must hear Avraham speaking of “my lords” or “אדני” (“adonay”) as a great play on words; not only is Avraham addressing these men subserviently, Rashi sees these three men as angels (the three men who each come with an individual message-mission [among them being to tell Sarah about her son {as executed so slickly in 18:10}, allowing one man to leave those men who leave for Sodom {in 18:22}—explaining why there are only two angels left in 19:1]). To the rabbis, Avraham not only addresses his guests as “lords” but he addresses Adonay, his Lord whom these angels represent. Furthermore, Avraham’s welcoming subservience is emphasized by his calling himself “your servant”—“עבדך” (“`avdekha”) or “עבדכם” (“`avdekhem”)—but perhaps God heard Avraham say “Your servant” with a capital “Y” because God will soon call Avraham “My servant” or “עבדי” (“`avdi”) in Parashat Toledot (26:24). For Rashi though, the real clincher comes when Avraham commands them to “eat to your hearts’ desires” because when Avraham speaks of these angels’ hearts, Avraham’s choice of words could only apply to God or angels. Rashi tells us that Rabbi Hama, in Bereshit Rabbah (48:11), sees Avraham choosing to say “לבכם” (“libbekhem”) (with only one letter ב [bet], and not “לבבכם” [“levavkhem”]—which we might be familiar with from the passages of the Shema [Deuteronomy 11:13], with two בs [bets]) because having two בs (bets) in the word for “hearts” implies that there’s a duality in our hearts: that there is a good inclination and that there is a bad inclination; in fact, Rabbi Hama says we know from here that angels whose hearts can be expressed with only one ב (bet) must have no duality in their hearts: that angels only have a good inclination.
In speaking to Mathilde this week, I pray that we can learn from Avraham. May we all learn that whenever we speak, we should speak words of compassion. Beyond compassion, may we all utter truths greater than what we realize. And may we all learn to be like angels: to deliver messages from God to Earth.

Adonay, sefatay tiftach ufi yagid tehillatekha. ה‘, שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתך.
Lord, as You open my lips, my mouth will tell of Your praise.


About jonahrank

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