Shabbat Table Topics – Parashat Vayera

Did the Avot Keep the Mitzvot?

This issue had been debated throughout the ages. On one hand, the Avot and Imahot lived centuries before the Torah was given and many of its laws would be meaningless to them.  On the other hand, it seems paradoxical to conceive of the founders of a religion not observing even its most basic commandments. 

  • What other factors might lead one to suggest that the Avot did in fact observe at least some of the commandments?
  • What evidence might you bring from Torah to support each position?
  • With which side of the debate do you agree; why?  See Avot and Mitzvot – Was Avraham the First Jew?

Criticizing our Avot

To what extent should we view our ancestors as perfect role models worthy of emulation, reinterpreting any stories that cast shadows on their reputations, and when is it fair to criticize their actions and recognize that they, too, might have had human flaws?  Use the story of the Banishment of Hagar and Yishmael as a test case to explore the question.

  • What crime could possibly justify the banishment of one's son? 
  • How should Yishmael's "צחוק" be understood?  Is it possible that the righteous Sarah would be ready to expel Yishmael for innocuous laughter? On the other hand, is it conceivable that a son raised by Avraham could have committed crimes so dire that such a punishment was warranted?
  • Compare the Tannaim in Bereshit Rabbah53:11About Bereshit Rabbah, who defend Sarah by depicting a particularly wicked Yishmael, with R. Avraham SabaTzeror HaMor Bereshit 21:9:11About R. Avraham Saba (Tzeror HaMor) who condemns her (despite Hashem backing her decision).

Collective Punishment & Collective Salvation

Many readers view Avraham's Prayer for Sedom as a condemnation of collective punishment.  A closer look, however, reveals that his request is more complex.  Avraham seems to simultaneously appeal to Divine mercy for collective salvation, asking to spare even the wicked of the city due to the virtues of the righteous. Discuss with your family:

  • Is collective salvation any more just than collective punishment?  Is Avraham being inconsistent in condemning one while requesting the other?  Or, should his plea be understood in a different way?
  • Can Hashem be swayed by human argument?  Is it conceivable that Hashem's feelings about collective punishment/salvation changed as a result of Avraham's pleas? Does the story suggest that they did?
  • Finally, look to other examples of punishment in Tanakh.  Is collective punishment the norm or the exception?1

Angels or Men

What does the Torah believe about angels?  Though many characters are referred to as "מלאכים", when does this term refer to a celestial being and when to a human messenger?  Are angels corporeal or immaterial beings? If the latter, how can they be seen by humans or do physical actions such as eating? 

What can the story of Avraham and the Three Guests teach about the subject? Compare the approaches of rationalists like Rambam2 42About Rambam Moreh Nevukhim and RalbagBereshit Beur HaParashah 18:2-5About R. Levi b. Gershom, with the more mystically inclined, such as RambanBereshit 18:1About R. Moshe b. Nachman.  With whose position do you agree?

Questioning Divine Commands

How is one to understand both Hashem' directive to sacrifice Yitzchak and Avraham's willing compliance?

  • How can a moral God, who later in the Torah denounces murder and declares the practice of child sacrifice to be abhorrent, demand of Avraham to kill his child?  Why did Avraham agree without even questioning the directive, as he had when Hashem revealed his intentions to destroy Sedom?
  • To debate: What is the proper course of action when human conceptions of morality, or even the Torah's own ethical system, conflict with a Divine command?  If Hashem were to tell you, today, to sacrifice a loved one, what would you do?
  • See Purpose of Akeidat Yitzchak for discussion of these and other theological issues raised by the story.


For more, see: Parashat Vayera Topics.