11/10/2011 08:00 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Parshat Vayera: The Weekly Torah Portion Explained (VIDEO)

Editor's note: The Weekly HuffTorah Portion is an overview of the Torah reading of the week and includes links to additional resources for study and discussion. It also gives me a chance to re-read some endlessly fascinating tales. Read the full text of Parshat Vayera with interlinear Hebrew/English.

God appears to Abraham while he sits at the entrance of his tent in the heat. Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three men standing over him. He runs toward them and bows to the ground. "My Lord, if you find favor in me, if I am your servant, do not go away," he says.

Abraham asks for water to be brought, for the men's feet to be washed, for them to rest beneath a tree. He says he will bring bread to sustain them on their journey. The men tell Abraham to do exactly as he has said.

Hebrew Hospitality

Abraham runs back to his tent, where he tells Sarah to quickly get flour and make cakes, and then runs to the cattle and selects a calf to be prepared. Meanwhile, he gives the men cream and milk, which they eat beneath the tree.

The men ask Abraham, "Where is your wife?" And he tells them she's in the tent. One of the men says that he will return in a year and Sarah will have a son. Sarah, at the entrance of the tent, overhears this and laughs: "I am old - like dried fruit! Should I again be ripe? And what about Abe? He's so old!"

God says to Abraham, "Is Sarah for real? Why does she laugh? Is there something I can't do? You know the time and place. I'll be there, and Sarah will have a son."

Scared, Sarah denies laughing. But the all-knowing can't be fooled: "Actually, yeah, you did laugh," God says.

The men rise and gaze in the general direction of Sodom. Abraham escorts them.

A Deal With the Divine

God asks Godself, "Should I hide my plan from Abraham, who will become a great nation? I love him because he is righteous and because he does what I say." So God announces that terrible things have been heard in Sodom and Gomorrah. Once the facts on the ground have been acquired, God says, the cities will be destroyed.

The men turn toward Sodom and leave Abraham, so the humble servant approaches God to make a deal: "For 50 righteous men, you'll still destroy the city? How can you bring death to the righteous in the same breath as the wicked?"

"OK," God says, "If there are 50 righteous men there, I will not destroy the city."

"OK, I know I'm like dust compared to you, but how about 45 righteous men?"

"For 45, the city will be spared."

"Not that I know anything, but 40 good men -- I'm sure you can find 40 good men there."

"Fine, 40 would be fine, too."

"What about 30? I don't mean to be a bother, but will you bring destruction on account of 30 righteous men?" Abraham persists.

"No, I'll spare them all for 30."

"And 20?"

"That would be OK, too."

"OK, final question, I promise! Will you destroy the city if there are 10 good men there?"

"I will not destroy them if there are 10," God says and departs.

Wicked Blues

Two angels arrive in Sodom in the evening and Lot, Abraham's nephew, who is sitting at the gate of the city when they arrive, stands and bows in greeting: "Come with me. You can spend the night at my place, wash and rest and rise early."

"No, we'll stay in the town square," the angels say. But Lot persists and the angels follow him to his house, where he prepares a feast and bakes matzah. The angels eat and are just about to relax when the whole raving town of Sodom knocks on Lot's door and shouts: "Where are those men? Bring them so we may know them!"

Lot slips outside, shutting the door behind him, and begs the mob to behave. To placate them, he offers his virgin daughters. But the men inside -- do nothing to them, he says.

"Back off! Who are you to judge? We'll do you much worse!" And the mob presses upon Lot and tries to break down the door.

The angels pull Lot into the house, shut the door and render blind the mob's front lines. "Get your kids, get your wife, 'cause we're about to destroy this city," they say. So Lot runs and tells his sons-in-law what he knows, but they think it's all a big joke. At dawn, the angels urge Lot to take his wife and unwed daughters and go. But Lot lingers, so the angels grasp the hands of the whole crew and drag them outside the city. "Run to the mountains and don't look back and don't stop, or you will be swept away, too!"

But Lot argues, "Please, the mountains are too far away. There is a city near, we can go there. Please!"

"Fine, go to the city. Hurry. Sodom and Gomorrah cannot be destroyed until you get there."

When the sun had risen, Lot reached the city. God had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, and Lot's wife had turned around to see. For this, she was turned to a pillar of salt.

Meanwhile, Abraham wakes early and goes to the place where he'd bartered with God. In the distance, he sees smoke rising and wonders...

For the Good of Mankind?

Lot, having rested in the city, now goes into the mountains with his daughters. Out of fear, they find a cave and dwell there.

The daughters assume the whole world has been destroyed and conspire to repopulate it the only way they know: by sleeping with their father. So they get Lot drunk on wine and the older daughter lies with him.

On the next day, they do the same, but this time the younger daughter sleeps with Lot. Lot is not aware of either daughter lying down or getting up. And thus, his daughters become pregnant by him. Later, Moab and Ben-Ammi are born.

The First Dream

Abraham and Sarah pick up and go, eventually arriving in Gerar, where Abraham says Sarah is his sister. Abimelech, the king of Gerar, calls for Sarah and takes her, but God comes to the king in a dream -- the first dream in the Bible -- and says that he will die because he took Sarah, a married woman.

"But I didn't do anything!" the king says. "I thought she was his sister, and besides, my nation is righteous!"

God says: "I prevented you from sinning because I knew you did not know. Now, return Sarah. Abraham is a prophet and he will pray for you. You will die if you don't."

So the king rose early to tell his servants what happened and then summoned Abraham. Asked why he conspired in such a way, Abraham says he thought Gerar was a godless place. "And anyway, she is my sister. Sort of. It's complicated. But she is, and she's my wife. And she said I am her brother because I asked her to."

Abimelech returns Sarah to Abraham and gives them animals and servants ta boot. On top of this, he tells Abraham that he can settle wherever in the distance he wishes. As a final gift, he gives Abraham a silver face covering so that they will not again have a similar problem upon entering a city.

Abraham prays to God now and God relieves the king and his court of their constrictions.

The Gift of Laughter

God remembers Sarah and gives her a son. Abraham calls him Isaac -- "laughter" -- and circumcises him after eight days, as God had commanded. He is 100 years old when Isaac is born. Though she is nearly as old as her husband, Sarah is able to nurse Isaac. Abraham prepares a feast to celebrate.

Sarah sees Ishmael mocking them, so she tells Abraham to banish the boy and his mother, Hagar. Abraham stresses over this. God tells him to chill: "It'll be fine, don't worry. Do as Sarah tells you. Ishmael will become a great nation, too."

Abraham gets up early to tell Hagar and Ishmael to leave, giving them water and bread. They depart and wander in the desert until the water runs out. Hagar leaves Ishmael under a tree and walks away, afraid to watch her son die. She weeps. God hears the cries of Ishmael. An angel speaks to Hagar from heaven, telling her not to worry, that God has heard the boy's cries. "Lift your eyes. He will be a great nation. Lift your eyes and see." So Hagar looks and sees a well of water. And saves the boy from death. And they lived in the desert and Ishmael grew to be a great archer and married an Egyptian.

Meanwhile, Abraham makes a deal with Abimelech regarding a well. He gives the king seven ewes as proof of payment for the well. The two shake hands, and Abraham plants an orchard at that place and proclaims the Holy Name. Now, Abraham spends much time in the land of the Philistines.

The Final (Fatal?) Test

God says to Abraham, "Kill me a son."

"OK," Abe says, "you are on." And he wakes early, saddles the donkey, takes two servants and his son, splits the wood for the fire and goes to Mount Moriah, where God told him to go.

The contingent walks and walks, and on the third day Abraham sees the mountain.

"Stay here," he says to the servants, "We'll go up, pray and return."

With the fire and the knife in hand, Abraham and Isaac ascend.

"Dad," Isaac says.

"Yes?" his father replies.

"We have everything we need to make an offering except the offering. What gives?"

"God will find a lamb for the offering, son. Trust," Abraham says, and the two ascend.

Abraham builds and altar, places Isaac on top, binds him and lifts the knife to do the deed. Just then an angel of calls out: "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Hey! I'm here," he responds.

"Don't! Stop! I know you fear God. Don't sacrifice your one and only son."

Abraham looks up and sees a ram with its horns caught in a thicket. So he takes the ram and offers it to God on the altar and names the place Hashem Yireh -- "God will be seen."

The angel calls out again, telling Abraham that because he has followed through with God's commands, he will be blessed. Really blessed. Crazy blessed. Infinitely. All because he listened to God's voice.

Abraham returns to the servants and they settle in Beer-sheba, near the well. As things go, Abraham learns that more children are born. Among them: Rebecca.

Questions for Reflection

Does Abraham gives his guests milk and meat together?

Why does the angel say that Sodom and Gomorrah can't be destroyed until Lot and his family reach the city, if it's already smoldering by the time they arrive?

Why does Lot's incestuous encounter go unpunished?

Why does God punish the people in Gerar if Abimelech had good intentions?

Why does Ishmael mock them?

Is the well that Hagar finds connected to the well that Abraham purchases?

Why does it say that Abraham -- only Abraham -- returns to the two servants after sacrificing the ram? Where's Isaac?

Resources for further commentary, discussion and reflection: