Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

About Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb received her M.A. in Judaic Studies and Tanach from the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Yeshiva University and studied at Bar-Ilan University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. Before making aliyah, she taught at Ramaz School and Stern College in New York. She teaches Tanach and Medieval Commentators.

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb



How does one define the place of this woman whose challenges in life, unlike the theological ones facing her husband, seem closer to our human understanding?  She is beautiful, for which she pays a heavy price.  She is called a matriarch, yet she seems to have spent most of her life longing to be a mother.   This class (and the next one – Hagar) will try to begin to look at this life partner of Abraham.

View the introductory video below:

Part I:  The Text:


Two stories are told about Sarah’s beauty that became a liability when faced with foreign kingdoms.  The first takes place in Egypt (12:10-13:1) and the second in Gerar (20:1-18).  Let’s start with the events in Egypt.

Bereshit 12:10-13:1

Abraham takes his household down to Egypt because of the famine that has struck the land. As Radak (R. David Kimchi of Provence) explains well, Abraham had both livestock and many people for whose lives he was responsible he “could not tolerate a famine.”  Being unable to wait out the problem, he heads to Egypt which it is not dependant on rain since it has the Nile.

But going to Egypt raises a different fear in Abraham:  Sarah’s beauty is a liability in that country.

What does Abraham propose and what is his reason? Why might Sarah agree to it?  Did she agree to it?

We should remember that in those times (and in ours, in some places) a woman had to be attached to a male relative that protects her.  We see this in the story of Dinah (Gen. 34), where Simeon and Levy take revenge for their sister.  They are her full brothers (sharing a mother, not just a father) and they are responsible for her.  Similarly, Absalom takes revenge for his sister Tamar (II Sam 13) since he is her full brother.  (Also of significance to our story, Tamar proposes to Amnon that he marry her, his half sister, certain that the king will not object.)  Is Abraham proposing a protection system for Sarah?  Would he be a better protector as a brother than as a husband?

Bereshit 20:1-18

Unlike the story of going to Egypt, in the story of going to Gerar there is no conversation between Abraham and Sarah.  Was the safety plot already a given?  Did the conversation take place but the Torah did not need to repeat the motive and logic of the move that we have already seen? 

Compare the reactions of Pharaoh and Abimelekh upon discovering that they were misinformed.

Consider the following points:  How do they find out?  Who has been wronged, in their opinion?  How do they feel that they have been wronged?  Does either of them get an explanation?  Why?  How does each of them seem to view Sarah?

The Lack of Children

About 20 generations after Eve-Hava, named so for she is “the mother of all Hai (living)”, Sarah fails in this quintessential role of womanhood in the early passages of Tanakh.  Sarah is the first barren woman in the Torah.  The yearning for a child has both emotional-biological aspects, and social implications.  Reading her story, and keeping in mind other biblical stories that you are familiar with, (and putting aside our modern notions) consider the following questions:

How does a barren woman act?
What is her status?
What is her responsibility to her husband?
How might society view her?

The most extreme action that Sarah takes for the sake of having children is giving her handmaid Hagar to Abraham.   We will consider how that worked out when we study Hagar, but do think about how that story fits into the questions above.

Sarah laughed

So did Abraham in chapter 17, but who remembers that?

In 18:9-15 Sarah laughs upon hearing (from behind the tent) that she is going to have a child in a year from that time.

Why did Sarah laugh?

Laughter can come from many different emotions.  Was she overjoyed?  Was she cynical?  Was she skeptical or full of faith?

Compare her laughter (and its circumstances) with that of Abraham, in chapter 17.  Do both laughs come from the same place?  If you were to offer a translation, how would you translate each of them?


The only motherly acts that we are told about are in chapter 21.

When Isaac is born Sarah composes a song (21:6-7) in honor of the event.  So does Hannah after the birth of Samuel (Sam I 2:1-10).

What might this tell us about the state of mind of these two women who had been barren and faced adversary in their own home because of it?

Interestingly, the birth of Isaac was chosen as the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah (New Year).  The rabbis chose the story of Hannah and her poem as the Haftara (the section from prophets read at the end of the Torah reading, highlighting some aspect of the Torah portion) for this Torah section.

Sarah’s second motherly act is protecting the interests of Isaac.

Why did she insist on the removal of Ishmael and his mother from the household?

And while we are at it:  Why is she absent from the story of the Akeda (the binding of Isaac)?

Her death (23:1-4)

It is at Sarah’s death that Abraham is faced with their fragile existence in the land from a different angle.  While God had promised the land to future generation, the family has no parcel of land to call their own.  The urgency created by the need to bury her, and the desire to do so properly – in a family tomb – not among strangers, leads to Abraham’s first acquisition of land in Canaan.

Why is Sarah’s death dealt with at length? (Many other are not even mentioned once they leave the story.)

Along with the answers that you can think of for this question, it is interesting to note that Sarah spent her life making sure that Abraham had an heir – the first step to realizing the great nation he had been promised.  But it is her death that gains Abraham the first foothold in the land which was promised to the great nation that will come.

Part II – Other Sources:

Rashi Genesis 11:29


רשי בראשית פרק יא פסוק כט  

יסכה זו שרה, על שם שסוכה ברוח הקודש, ושהכל סוכין ביפיה. ועוד: ‘יסכה’ לשון נסיכות, כמו ‘שרה’ לשון שררה:

Iscah is Sarah because she would gaze (סוֹכָה) through Divine inspiration, and because all gazed (סוֹכִין) at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom, (נְסִיכוֹת), just as Sarah is an expression of dominion (שְׁרָרָה). – [from Meg. 14a]

Why does Rashi/the Midrash wish to combine these 2 people into one?

Having noticed the intertwined marriages of the future generations, the Midrash seems to have concluded that this might have been the common practice.  And if the family took care of Haran’s other two children who were left orphaned, would it not make sense that they also made sure to keep Isca in the family? Finally, in chapter 21 Abraham seems to suggest that there is a family relation between them (in addition to marriage.)

Rashi/Midrash is practicing an old art: Midrash Shem (exegesis of a name) – a Midrash on the name that teaches us about the person/place that bears it.  As names in Hebrew are assumed to carry a meaning, this kind of exegesis adds richness to a text that is brief in its very nature.  Anyone can create a Midrash Shem, and there is no need to be too particular about proper grammar.  Stop to think of Hebrew names of people around you.  How well does the name’s meaning suit the person?

 Ibn Ezra 11:29

אבן עזרא בראשית פרק יא פסוק כט  

(כט) …וקדמונינו ז”ל אמרו שיסכה היא שרה. ואם קבלה נקבל. והאומרים כי שרה היתה אחות אברהם איננו ישר בעיני זה הטעם. ואלו היה כן היה הכתוב אומר: ‘ויקח תרח את אברם בנו ושרי בתו אשת אברם בנו’… גם כן, אלו היתה אחות לוט היה הכתוב אומר: ‘ואת שרי בת בנו’ כאשר כתב על לוט.

And our ancestors of blessed memory said that Iscah is Sarah, and if this is the tradition – we shall accept it.  But those who say that Sarah was Abraham’s sister [and therefore Iscah is Sarah] I do not find this reason acceptable.  For it was so, the text would say ‘and Terah took Avram his son and Sarai his daughter the wife of Avram his son…’ Also, if she was the sister of Lot, the text would have said ‘and Sarai the daughter of his son’ as it says about Lot.

How does Ibn Ezra argue that Sarah would not have been Abraham’s sister?  Along similar lines – what doubts does he raise about Sarah being Haran’s daughter?

Notice that he does not quote text but rather suggests what the text would have said if indeed the Midrash brought by Rashi was correct.  Of course, you are not obligated to accept Ibn Ezra’s opinion…

In general:  What might be the ramifications of identifying Sarah with Isca, or not doing so?

Rashi 16:4

רשי בראשית פרק טז פסוק ד 

ותקל גברתה בעיניה – אמרה: שרי זו אין סתרה כגלויה, מראה עצמה כאלו היא צדקת ואינה צדקת, שלא זכתה להריון כל השנים הללו, ואני נתעברתי מביאה ראשונה:

And her mistress became unimportant in her eyes:  She [Hagar] said, “This Sarai, her conduct in private is not like her conduct in public. She shows herself as if she is a righteous woman, but she is not a righteous woman, for she did not merit conceiving all these years, whereas I have conceived from the first union.”

Rashi places these words in the mouth of Hagar, Sarah’s handmaid.  But whose thoughts are reflected here?

It could of course be just Hagar.  But is it possible that people viewed children/wealth as a reward from God?  Could it be that these were not the words of outside people but Sarah’s thoughts?  The emotional toll that bareness has on the family is great.  In a time that women were greatly defined by their childbearing ability, such a situation must have eroded the woman’s self confidence, and perhaps also her social/family status.

 Rashi 21:12

רשי  בראשית פרק כא פסוק יב  

שמע בקולה: למדנו שהיה אברהם טפל לשרה בנביאות:

Hearken to her voice: (to the voice of the holy spirit within her.) We learn from here that Abraham was inferior to Sarah in prophecy.

What might the implications be about Sarah’s relationship with God?

I would like to hear your opinion about this.  Why might she have been greater at prophecy? What kind of a relationship did she have with God?

Go to Next Class – Hagar



Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is the character that provides us with a glimpse of what Abraham could have become.  Like Abraham he was wealthy.  Apparently, like Abraham, he received a respected status in the community despite having arrived from outside.  He does trust the word of God, as we see when he escapes the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  Yet, he is a very different person.  Holding up this mirror to Abraham gives us an opportunity to begin contemplating what the fine differences were that made Abraham the founder and father that he became.

View the introductory video below:


We are first introduced to Lot at Gen 11:31 as he leave Ur Casdim with his grandfather Terah and Abraham, with the intention of going to Canaan.  They stop at Haran and settle down there.  As Abraham continues on to Canaan, Lot goes with him.

Is there any difference in Lot’s going in 11:31 and in 12:4-5?

Lot as a Herds Owner

As Abraham returns from Egypt, Lot is with him.  We discover that Lot seems to be independently wealthy, but added property comes at a cost.

Gen. 13:5-8:  Was the problem that causes the split objective or subjective?

Read the text carefully.  Is your impression that it was physically impossible to live in close proximity (too many sheep and not enough food) or was there a subjective element that pushed the 2 apart?

What might the fight have been about?

Why are we told that Canaanites and Pereezites were then in the land?

Who does Abraham hold responsible for the friction?

Gen 13: 9-13:  What is Abraham offering Lot?

The offer sound silly if you imagine the scene:  Abraham and Lot are facing each other, and Abraham proposes to go to the left if Lot chooses to go to the right, and vice versa.  It would mean that they would go in the same direction… Here it is important to understand that “right” and “left” are south and north, not a direction relative to the body of the person.   Orientation in the bible is exactly that:  Facing the orient, the east.  In Hebrew we find this direction called Kedem, and hence the term for ‘forward’ – kadima. Once we face east, our right hand (Yamin) is the south (also known as Tayman) and our left is in the north.

When Lot chooses the area of Sodom, is he simply doing what his uncle told him to do?

If you stopped and thought through the previous question, did Abraham offer his nephew the area of Sodom which is located east from Abraham’s tent are in the mountains north of Jerusalem (v.3)?!

Lot’s hospitality (19:1-11)

Both by content and language this story seems to be a continuation of the events of chapter 18.  Just like Abraham, Lot sees the guests, runs to them and pleads to be allowed to host them.  Here, too, we have a story of hospitality where the host promises little but delivers plenty.  The consequences for the actions are very different.

19:4-11:What do we learn about the people of Sodom?

We might be trying to learn about Lot, but a person’s environment is significant in understanding him, especially considering that Lot chose to live in Sodom.   The text gives us a sense of a town where all stand together, even in criminal and morally repugnant activities.  Was the motive for their demand to hand over the people that came that night only to satisfy their lust?

Why did Lot offer his daughters instead of the guests that have just come?

This might be a cultural issue gone wrong.  Hospitality has a very high value among at least some nomadic tribes (and Lot, the shepherd, had been nomadic).  But sometimes one does what is right by the book and wrong by any moral standard.

Why do the people of Sodom refuse Lot’s proposal to give them his daughters?  (I will not even ask you if your stomachs are feeling sick yet…)

Perhaps their motive was not lust.  What were they hoping to achieve by raping the newcomers?

Saving Lot (19:12-26)

It is not easy to read about the saving of Lot from the destruction of Sodom.  Being saved from destruction should be a positive event, yet, when we consider what it means, it is hard to avoid the bitter taste of the destruction that took with it the person’s community and some of his family.

Who does Lot lose in the process of escaping? Why do they die?

Most of Lot’s family does not seem to escape to safety.  His sons in law consider him a fool, his wife does not obey the order not to look back.  Could it be part of human nature not to believe that it could be that bad?

If you are able to read the Hebrew, pay attention to some of the vocabulary that is used here.  The roots of שחת, שלח, ארץ, מטר, זכר (destroy, send, the Earth, raining down, remember) bring us back to the story of Noah.  In case we did not notice it in the language used, the next scene, of improper sexual relations and wine drinking, should certainly remind us of the aftermath of Noah’s exit from the ark after his entire world had been destroyed by a natural/Godly event.

Lot and His Daughters (19:30-38)

This section deserves a full session, but since some of us studied it already as part of the “Villains in Tanakh” course last year, we will focus on the role of Lot here, not that of his daughters.

Our main question about Lot (that could perhaps be answered by hints in the text) is:

Was Lot merely a hapless victim of his daughters’ conniving, or was he aware of what was going on (at least at some point)?

The answer to this question is crucial to our understanding of Lot in this story, and in retrospect at the entire episode of [excessive] hospitality at his daughters’ expense.  Read the text carefully, better yet in Hebrew.  Are the accounts of the episode with the 2 daughters identical?  (In Hebrew the term for sexual intercourse is slightly different.) What might this tell us?

There is no mention of Lot following this episode.  Why?

Was it because there were no more relevant stories?  Had Abraham lost interest? Did Lot ever turn to his uncle for help after his community was destroyed?


The stories around the patriarchs are sometimes echoes in later stories of the People of Israel.

Who are nations that came from this questionable union of Lot and his daughters, and what was the relationship between them and the descendents of Abraham?

Read Deuteronomy 2:9, 18-19 and Deuteronomy 23:4-7.  Two different approaches are evident here.  How do we explain the difference between them?

Lot Part II – Some Other Views:

Rashi Genesis 13:7

רשי בראשית יג ז  

ויהי ריב: לפי שהיו רועים של לוט רשעים ומרעים בהמתם בשדות אחרים, ורועי אברם מוכיחים אותם על הגזל, והם אומרים ‘נתנה הארץ לאברם, ולו אין יורש, ולוט יורשו, ואין זה גזל.’ והכתוב אומר והכנעני והפרזי אז יושב בארץ ולא זכה בה אברם עדיין:

And there was a quarrel: Since Lot’s herdsmen were wicked, and they pastured their animals in fields belonging to others, Abram’s herdsmen rebuked them for committing robbery, but they responded, “The land was given to Abram, who has no heir; so Lot will inherit him, and therefore this is not robbery.” But Scripture states: “And the Canaanites and the Perizzites were then in the land,” and Abram had not yet been awarded its possession.

Rashi, following an old Midrash, raises two issues: One personal and one universally human.

How wrong were the shepherds of Lot?  Was Lot not Abraham’s heir (as Abraham had no children)?  What  was the quarrel about?

According to this Midrash the quarrel is (partially) about the right to inherit.  It is interesting that at no point does Abraham seem to suggest that Lot is his designated heir, just the opposite.  Even when he tells God that he is childless and his servant will inherit from him, Lot is not mentioned.  Abraham is the first in the Bible that we are told passes on an inheritance, and we sense that it is the spiritual inheritance that he is concerned about.  For those who have read the book of Genesis, as well as some other parts of the Bible, it is clear that the Bible does not believe in inheritance due to biology and hierarchy.  For example:  Isaac, Jacob, Judah, and Solomon were all younger (but better suited) sons.  Moses passes his position to his student Joshua.

Midrash rarely limits itself to a specific incident.  What is the human, universal issue raised by this Midrash?

We all know that stealing is wrong, but there are many gray areas of theft.  Are you entitled to take something that will be yours anyway if you just wait a little?  Am I obligated to prevent an animal in my possession from damaging what belongs to others?

Below is what Rashi says in Exodus 3:1, when we meet Moses the shepherd who is about to become the leader of the Israelites:

Rashi Exodus 3:1

רשי שמות ג א 

אחר המדבר: להתרחק מן הגזל, שלא ירעו בשדות אחרים:

Following the desert: to distance [himself] from the robbery, so that they [the flocks] would not pasture in others’ fields.

What might this teach us about Rashi and his demands of leaders?

Nachmanides Genesis 19:8 

רמבן בראשית יט ח

אוציאה נא אתהן אליכם – מתוך שבחו של האיש הזה באנו לידי גנותו, שהיה טורח מאד על אכסניא שלו להציל אותם מפני שבאו בצל קורתו, אבל שיפייס אנשי העיר בהפקר בנותיו אין זה כי אם רוע לב, שלא היה ענין הזמה בנשים מרוחק בעיניו, ולא היה עושה לבנותיו חמס גדול כפי דעתו:

I shall bring them out to you – From the praise of this man we have come to his disgrace.  For he worked very hard on his hospitality to save them since they came under his roof; but to appease the town’s people by abandoning his daughters is simply wicked-heartedness! For improper sexual relations with women were not a distant thing from his mind, and he did not think that he was doing a great evil to his daughters.

How does (Ramban) Nachmanides sum up this very disturbing story of Lot’s hospitality?

To Ramban’s criticism I can only add what an experienced educator once said to me:  There is nothing worse than the person who is very concerned about doing the appropriate thing.  His preoccupation with being “correct” prevents him from proper judgment and common sense regarding his actions.

Go to Next Class – Kings All Around

Kings All Around

Kings All Around

Bereshit (Genesis) 14

While most stories about Abraham are stories involving individuals, we cannot ignore his involvement with the political and cultic powers around him.  In our session about Sarah we saw his encounters with kings outside of Canaan (if Gerar, Abimelekh’s kingdom on the southern Mediterranean shore can be considered outside Canaan.)  But Abraham has encounters with political powers also within Canaan.  Chapter 14 seems full of kings and battles.

Part I – The Biblical Text

The story of chapter 14 is a bit confusing.  The four kings listed seem to be kings of distant and powerful kingdoms of Mesopotamia.  They arrive in the Levant to punish local people that had stopped paying tribute to them.  But who are they after, and what are all the various kings, nations, and city-states doing in the story?

To fully appreciate the confusion that seems to reign in this chapter, let us try to identify as many as possible of the mentioned kings.

Those mentioned in v. 1 are not well known, or not known at all.  What we can identify is Shinar (Babylon) and Elam (Persia).  Both are located in the other end of the Mesopotamia (the Fertile Crescent).

What perspective does that give to the entire war story that will follow?

What do we learn about the relations in the area?  About travel? About army movements and conquests in the greater region?

Who are the Mesopotamian kings fighting against? (v.2)

The towns of Sodom, Gomorra, and the smaller 3 towns were located at the southern part of what is today the Dead Sea. How big were they?

Let’s consider the situation:

Four Mesopotamian kings walk with their armies well over 600 miles to fight…5 small towns?!

Why did they come?

When the Mesopotamian kings arrive they battle a different group of nations that seem to be spread over a great area of the Levant (vv.5-7).

What is going on here and who is fighting whom?
Why did the kings of Sodom, Gomorra etc. get involved, and who are they fighting?

On to Abraham:

Abraham gets involved once his nephew Lot is taken captive and carried off northward.

First episode:

How does Abraham deal with the situation?  What other options might he have considered?

For the first time we hear that Abraham has allies around him.  How does this affect our understanding of Abraham in the land of Canaan?

You might also want to consider Abraham’s words regarding Aner Eshkol and Mamre in v.24

The manpower at Abraham’s disposal is impressive.  Who might these people be?  (The Hebrew term חניכיו is not clear at all.)

Second episode:

Now Abraham has returned the captured people (what might have happened to them otherwise?) and we witness 2 meetings.

Notice that the meeting with the king of Sodom and the meeting with Melchizedek king of Shalem (Salem) are intertwined.  Consider what this does to our understanding of the characters involved.

Why does the King of Sodom come out to meet Abraham (v.17)? 

We do not hear a word from him until later.  What might that greeting have been?

At this point the story shifts to Melchizedek who has the title “priest of The Most High god”.  What might that title mean and how close is Abraham to this cultic practice?

Why does Melchizedek come in to the story at this point?  Is it possible that Abraham knew Malkizedek previously?

It is interesting to note that Melchizedek is both king and priest.  The fusion of political and cultic power into one person exists in many different places and at different times in history.  King David seems to have wanted greater involvement in as a cultic leader (see II Sam chapter 6 and there 8:18) but his dynasty does not carry any functionary role in the Temple.  The “law of the king” in Deut. 17:14-20 seems to be clear as to the separate powers of the king and the priests, giving the priests some role in the supervision of the king.

Does Melchizedek bless Abraham by his own god or by the one of Abraham?  Is there a difference, and if so – what is the significance?

Who gave whom a tithe of all?  Where did the tithe come from? Based on your answers, what is the function of this tithe?

Now the king of Sodom returns.

Why does he resurface here?

How should we view his request of Abraham in v.22?

What is the meaning of Abraham’s statement that he will not take from the king of Sodom “from a thread to a shoestring”?

Are these 2 items somehow on 2 opposite ends?  Are they near each other in size and value and we should think about it as a circle, starting from a thread and going all the way around, encompassing everything, until arriving at the shoestring.

Part II – Other Sources:

View a summary of the previous material and an introduction to the sources below:

Rashi Gen. 14:20 

רש”י בראשית פרק יד פסוק כ  

ויתן לו – אברם מעשר מכל אשר לו, לפי שהיה כהן:

And he Abraham gave him a tithe of everything which was his, since he was a priest.

Pay attention to how Rashi handles the verse:  He inserts the subject “Abraham”. (The words of the verse are bolded.)  What did Rashi achieve by doing this?

This is a well known method for clarifying a verse where the subject is ambiguous.

What other question is Rashi answering here?

This is not simple.  When you read the Radak you will see what disturbed him at this point.  It is safe to assume that Rashi was aware of the problem.  His answer is very brief and easily overlooked.

Radak (Kimchi) Gen. 14:20   

רדק בראשית פרק יד פסוק כ

ויתן לו מעשר מכל – המפרשים פרשו כי אברם נתן למלכי צדק מעשר מהמקנה והרכוש אשר הציל לפי שהיה כהן לאל עליון.

ואדוני אבי ז”ל פירש כי מלכי צדק נתן לאברם בדברו המעשר מן הדין, כי מלך סדום אמר לאברם “תן לי הנפש והרכוש קח לך” (להלן כא) ואברם אמר “אם מחוט ועד שרוך נעל” (כג). אמר מלכי צדק לאברם: מן הדין תוכל לקחת המעשר מן הכל ולא תקח דבר ממלך סדום כי שלך הוא המעשר מן הדין. כי כל מציל ממון חברו, המעשר הוא שלו על שטרח להצילו.

ונכון הוא הפירוש כי יש לתמוה לדעת המפרשים איך היה נותן אברם משל מלך סדום למלכי צדק, והוא לא רצה לקחת לעצמו ויתן לאחרים?! זה לא יתכן.

And he gave him a tithe of everything – The commentators explained that Abram gave Melchizedek a tithe from the livestock and the property which he rescued since he was a priest to The Most High god.

But my master – my father of blessed memory explained that Melchizedek gave Abram, through his speech, the tithe according to the law. Since the king of Sodom said to Abram “give me the people and the property take for you.” (V.21) but Abram said “if from a string to a shoelace…” (v.23)  said Melchizedek to Abram: By law you may take a tithe of all, yet you will not be taking a thing from the king of Sodom, since the tithe is yours by law.  For anyone that rescues the money of his fellow, the tithe is his for troubling himself to save it.

This explanation is correct, and one has to wonder about the opinion of the commentators: For how would Abram give from what belongs to the king of Sodom to Melchizedek yet he did not want to take anything for himself but would give it to others?!  This is not possible.

Whose view is Radak quoting as the correct meaning of the verse?

This person is one of Radak’s favorite sources.  It gives us a glimpse of who taught him. (Yes, the extravagant title is referring to his father.)

What question was troubling Radak?

Probably the same issue that troubled Rashi above, but Radak spells it out.  Considering what Abraham said to the king of Sodom, could he then have given a tithe of that property to Melchizedek?!  (One gives a tithe of one’s own belongings. Now read Rashi’s ‘fix up’ verse carefully.)

How did Melchizedek “give” Abraham a tithe, and from what did he give it?

How does Radak read the verse? (Try to write it as he would have, clarifying the pronouns.)  Now please go the Forum and post your Radak-inspired version of the verse.

Go to Next Class – Ishmael



We have met Ishmael before, but only as an attachment to Hagar.  Now let us examine what was his life like with his father, Abraham, and others around him, and how does the Torah view him.

The Name

As we have seen in Midrash Shem, the name a person bears may reflect both the past and the future.  A great example is the name Yoseph – Joseph.  Rachel explains that she names her son so because “God has gathered (asaph אסף) my shame” and with the hope that “God will add (yoseph יוסף) another child to me.”

How does Ishmael’s name reflect his early (possibly prenatal) history? (Consider chapter 16)

How does the name come to play out later in his life? (Consider chapter 21)

Who gave Ishmael his name?

In Abraham’s family that is a loaded question.  Even those that started with humanly given names seem to get them changed to a God given one.  What is the significance of giving a name?  In addition, Hagar was informed by the angel that this will be the child’s name.  It is not clear if it was an instruction or perhaps a form of prophecy.  If she felt instructed – did she share this with Abraham (who finally gives the name)?  If it was a prophecy, did it strengthen her faith in the rest of the Angel’s words now that this came true?

The Circumcision – Brit Milah (chapter 17:23-27)

The first 13 years of Ishmael’s life are left to our imagination. (I invite you to share your thoughts on this topic on the forum.)  It is at the age of 13 that Abraham takes him, along with the rest of the household, to be circumcised as ordered by God.  In the verses leading up to the performance of the Brit Milah (covenant of circumcision) that God promises Abraham that Sarah will give birth to a child who will be named Yitzchak, Isaac.

Please read 17:15-22.

What is Abraham’s reaction to the news of a future son by Sarah?

What does it tell us about his view of Ishmael?

We will save the discussion about the laughter for the session about Isaac.  Pay attention to his concern for Ishmael.

Now read the description of the participants in the circumcision covenant.

Whom does Abraham include in the covenant?  Who is at the top of the list? How is Ishmael referred to?

In chapter 16 we paid attention to the titles (“wife of” “maid of” etc,) it is worth while doing the same here.  The Torah, which is so sparing with words, clues us in to the manner in which a person is viewed (or views others) by the titles attached to him.  Notice how Abraham thinks of Ishmael.  What might Abraham have been thinking when he pushed his 13 year old to be one of those at the center of the ceremony?

“The son of the handmaid shall not inherit with my son, with Isaac!”

The passage in which Sarah demands that Ishmael leave the house cannot be read without being drawn into the great emotional turmoil going on in Abraham’s household.

After reading Bereshit 21:9-13, consider the following questions:

How did Sarah come to have such strong negative feelings towards the child whose birth she orchestrated with the hope of having a child?  Might her feelings ever have been different?

Read this section carefully, paying very close attention to how each person is described – telling us what role they play in the story.

Could Sarah’s demand be based on more than pure emotion?  If so, what might it be?

All this naturally leads us to the adult life of Ishmael:

His Marriage

Why did his mother choose an Egyptian wife for him?

What might be the ramifications of this choice?

Why is Abraham not involved in finding a wife for this son? 

(Here we are working on the assumption that there was still contact with Ishmael at least until Abraham’s death, perhaps later.  We will get to this soon.)

The issue of the national identity of the wife is highlighted with Isaac’s marriage, and especially in Abraham’s instructions on this issue.  Let’s keep our thoughts here in mind when we discuss Abraham’s servant later.

Burying Abraham:

For the end of Abraham’s life, read 25:1-10.  Pay special attention to v.9.

Who buries Abraham?

Notice that he has many children by the end of his life, but only 2 that seem to be active in his life.

How did Ishmael find out about the death in time to attend to the details of the burial?

There were no refrigerated conditions to leave a body unburied for any long period of time.  Ishmael’s involvement here should tell us something about how close and involved he was in his father’s life at the end of it.

Ishmael Part II – Some Other Views:

View a summary of the previous material and an introduction to the following sources below:

The Name:

Midrash Genesis Rabbah 45

בראשית רבה (וילנא) פרשה מה 

ויאמר לה מלאך ההנך הרה וגו’, א”ר יצחק: שלשה הן שנקראו בשמם לפני הקב”ה עד שלא נוצרו, ואלו הן: יצחק (בר’ יז) ושלמה (דה”א כב) ויאשיהו (מל”א יג)… ויש אומרים אף ישמעאל באומות: “הנך הרה וילדת בן וקראת את שמו ישמעאל”.

And the angel of the Lord said to her “behold, you will be pregnant…[and give birth to a son, and you shall name him Ishmael…] Said R. Yitzchak:  Three are those that were called by their names before the Holy One Blessed be He before they were even created.  And these are the ones: Isaac (Gen. 17:19) and Solomon (I Chronicles 22:9) and Josiah (I Kings 13:2)… And some says also Ishmael among the nations:  “You will be pregnant and give birth to a son, and you shall name him Ishmael.”

What might be the significance of being called by your name before God even before your creation?

How does this Midrash view Ishmael?  (If “the company he keeps” tells anything about him.)

The Circumcision – Brit Milah:

Rashi Genesis 16:16

רשי בראשית פרק טז פסוק טז  

ואברם בן שמנים שנה וגו‘: לשבחו של ישמעאל נכתב, להודיע שהיה בן שלש עשרה שנה כשנימול ולא עכב:

And Abram was eighty-six years old, etc.: This was written in praise of Ishmael, to let us know that he was thirteen years old when he was circumcised, and he did not hinder it.

What pushed Rashi to comment on this piece of information?

Rashi will frequently comment when he feels that a word (or an entire sentence) is superfluous.  His assumption is that there are no wasted words in the Torah, and so if it is there, it is for an important reason.  What seems superfluous here and what is the reason for including it?

And here is the Midrash that Rashi was aware of, but appears in connection to the stories in chapters 21-22, specifically on 22:1 “after these words”:

בראשית רבה (תיאודוראלבק) פרשה נה דה אחר הדברים האלה

יצחק וישמעאל היו מדיינין זה עם זה. זה אמר: ‘אני חביב ממך, שמלתי לי”ג שנה!’ וזה אמר: ‘אני חביב ממך שמלתי לח’ ימים!’ אמר לו ישמעאל: ‘אני חביב, שהייתי יכול למחות – ולא מחיתי.’ באותה שעה אמר יצחק: ‘הלווי יגלה עלי הקב”ה ויאמר לי שנחתיך אחד מאיבריי – ולא אעכב!’

Isaac and Ishmael were arguing with each other.  This one said ‘I am more beloved than you since I [was] circumcised at 13 years old!’ and this one said ‘I am more beloved than you since I [was] circumcised at 8 days!’  Said Ishmael to him I am beloved for I could have protested but I did not protest.  At that time Isaac said:  ‘Would it only be that the Holy One Blessed be He would reveal himself to me and tell me that one of my limbs would be cut – and I would not hinder it!’

A sibling rivalry as could only take place in Abraham’s household…but in style not much different than what happens everywhere.

Why does Isaac consider being circumcised at 8 days a greater sign of being beloved?

It is not difficult to understand Ishmael’s arguments, but how did Isaac understand his standing?

What is it in Ishmael’s argument that Isaac, at the opening of chapter 22, does not yet have a counter-claim to?

What is this midrash a prelude to?!


Midrash Genesis Rabbah 48

בראשית רבה (תיאודוראלבק) פרשה מח 

ויתן אל הנער זה ישמעאל, בשביל לזרזו במצות.

And he gave it to the lad – that was Ishmael, to train him to hurry in doing mitzvot (commandments.)

This midrash is based on the verse in Bereshit 18:7 (and the story around it.)

What in the verse pushed the midrash to give an identity to the anonymous lad?

On a deeper level, the midrash is wondering about the education that Abraham gave Ishmael, his heir-apparent.  (Isaac was not around yet.)  What kind of upbringing do you think that Abraham gave Ishmael?

A Broader View:

Rashi Genesis 21:17

רשי בראשית פרק כא פסוק יז  

באשר הוא שםלפי מעשים שהוא עושה עכשיו הוא נדון, ולא לפי מה שהוא עתיד לעשות.

לפי שהיו מלאכי השרת מקטרגים ואומרים: רבונו של עולם, מי שעתיד זרעו להמית בניך בצמא – אתה מעלה לו באר?! והוא משיבם: עכשיו מה הוא – צדיק או רשע? אמרו לו: צדיק. אמר להם: לפי מעשיו של עכשיו אני דנו. וזהו “באשר הוא שם”.

והיכן המית את ישראל בצמא? כשהגלם נבוכדנצר, שנאמר (ישעיה כא יג – יד) “משא בערב וגו’ לקראת צמא התיו מים” וגו’. כשהיו מוליכין אותם אצל ערביים, היו ישראל אומרים לשוביהם: בבקשה מכם, הוליכונו אצל בני דודנו ישמעאל – וירחמו עלינו, שנאמר (שם שם) “אורחות דודנים” [אל תקרי דודנים אלא דודים]. ואלו יוצאים לקראתם, ומביאין להם בשר ודג מלוח ונודות נפוחים. כסבורים ישראל שמלאים מים, וכשמכניסו לתוך פיו ופותחו, הרוח נכנס בגופו ומת:

Where he is: According to the deeds that he does now he is judged and not according to what he is destined to do.

For the ministering angels were accusing and saying, “O Lord of the Universe, for one who is destined to kill Your children with thirst, You are bringing up a well?!” And He answered them, “What is he now, righteous or wicked?” They replied, “Righteous.” He said to them, “According to his present deeds I judge him”.

And that is the meaning of “where he is.” Now where did he kill the Israelites with thirst? When Nebuchadnezzar exiled them, as it is stated (Isa. 21: 13f.): “The harsh prophecy concerning Arabia, etc. Toward the thirsty bring ye water, etc.” When they led them beside the Arabs, the Israelites said to their captors: “Please lead us beside the children of our uncle Ishmael, and they will have mercy on us,” as it is stated: “the caravans of the Dedanites.” Do not read דְדָנִים (Dedanites) but דְוֹדִים (uncles)*. And these [Ishmaelites] went forth toward them and brought them salted meat and fish and inflated skins. The Israelites thought that they were full of water, but when one would place it into one’s mouth and open it, the air would enter his body and he would die.

*The exegetical method of אל תקרי (do not read _____ but rather _____) is not a text emendation but rather a way of suggesting a different, less straight-forward, meaning of the text.

Our commentators sometimes view the book of Bereshit as being a foreshadow of events that will happen to the people of Israel in future generations.  They call it מעשה אבות סימן לבנים the deeds of the fathers is a sign for the children.

What in this verse seemed unclear or superfluous to Rashi?

How does he explain the word ‘שם – there’?

We usually assume that it is a referral to a space description.  That is not the case here. How does he read it?

Rashi is bringing up a question that often bothers us when looking at history.  How would you formulate his question?

Go to Next Class – Isaac


Isaac יצחק

Isaac is the missing child through most of the Abraham narrative.  He, the child of Sarah, is the longed for heir.  Ishmael may have dulled Abraham’s sense of longing, but probably intensified Sarah’s feelings.  Isaac’s arrival in the household throws the place into turmoil and brings the feud between the mothers to a breaking point.

View a video summary of this class below:

His Name: (Chapter 17:15-21)

Isaac is not mentioned by name until after Abraham has had his name changed.  He is born a year after the circumcision ceremony.    Let’s focus on the name:

When is the name announced?

We saw last week that having your name announced before your birth is a privilege reserved for few.  The giving of a name makes the child a reality long before they exist.

What does Yitzchak mean?  Why did God choose this name for him?

The root צחק (tz, ch, k) in Hebrew has to do with laughter.  The name itself is in the future tense.  Who will laugh?  Why?

Notice that Isaac is the only one of the patriarchs whose name is not changed during their life time.  But then we shall also remember that he is the only one who received his name from God before his birth.  His parents, his environment, the circumstances of his birth have no (human) input as to the name that is given to him.

Sarah’s Waiting:

Sarah’s painful longing through all the early chapters of the narrative is probably best understood by her spoken joy at the birth in 21:6-7 and the poetic description of the birth in 21:1-5.

Reading 21:1-7:

Who is the focus of God’s attention around the birth of Isaac?

How does Abraham see Isaac at the start?

Why is the circumcision at 8 days stressed here?

And a point to notice:  Abraham does not have a party of Isaac at his Brit Milah (at 8 days).  What might be the reason?

The Akeda (The Binding of Isaac) – Chapter 22

This is one of the most loaded stories of Tanakh, and impossible not to have a reaction to.  While we could spend a great deal of time on it, we will focus on Isaac’s part in this event.

Abraham takes Isaac and walks with him for three days.  In part II we will study some material about those days, but for now I want you to ask yourselves:

What is Isaac, who did not hear God’s command, think that they are doing?

(And if you want to, spend some time wondering what Sarah thought that they were doing….)

The only conversation between Abraham and Isaac is recorded here.  Read 22:6-8 carefully.

Notice the frame that the Torah creates around this text: וילכו שניהם יחדו “and the two of them walked together.” This intimate bubble matches the content.

How does Abraham speak to Isaac (or should I say “his son”)?

As we have seen before, the titles given to a person are significant in understanding how he is viewed in the story.  Pay attention to how Isaac is both addressed and written about.

What does Isaac ask his father?  What does he omit?

Compare the list of equipment in v. 6 with Isaac’s question in v. 7.  What did you discover?

How should we understand this omission? What affect does this have on your understanding of Isaac in the rest of the story?

Do you feel that the opening framing phrase of “and the two of them walked together” is identical in meaning to its use as the closing?

Where is Isaac at the end of the story?

As the story comes to a close, Abraham returns to Be’er Sheva.  Where is Isaac?

His Marriage:

We will study this in greater depth in the next session when we look at the role of Abraham’s trusted servant.  In the mean time try:

Compare Ishmael’s marriage with that of Isaac.  Who arranges it?  Why that person?  Why might it not work that way for Isaac?  Is this a designated role for a specific parent?  (If you compare with Esau or with Jacob’s sons, it would seem that the parents are not arranging the marriages at all!)

Isaac Part II – Some Other Views:

Rashi Gen 22:4

רשי בראשית פרק כב                                                                                              

(ד) ביום השלישי – למה איחר מלהראותו מיד?כדי שלא יאמרו הממו וערבבו פתאום וטרד דעתו, ואילו היה לו שהות להמלך אל לבו לא היה עושה:

On the third day:  Why did He delay from showing him [Abraham] immediately? So that [people] will not say ‘He shocked him and confused him suddenly and bewildered his mind.  If he [Abraham] would have had time to consider, he would not have done it.’

Midrash Tanhuma (Warsaw) Vayera 22

מדרש תנחומא (ורשא) פרשת וירא סימן כב 

 קדמו השטן בדרך ונדמה לו כדמות זקן. א”ל לאן אתה הולך? א”ל להתפלל. א”ל ומי שהולך להתפלל למה אש ומאכלת בידו ועצים על כתפו? א”ל שמא נשהא יום או יומים ונשחט ונאפה ונאכל, א”ל זקן! לא שם הייתי כשאמר לך הקב”ה קח את בנך? וזקן כמותך ילך ויאבד בן שנתן לו למאה שנה? לא שמעת המשל מה שהיה בידו אבדו ומבקש מאחרים? וא”ת יהיה לך בן אחר תשמע מן המשטין ותאבד נשמה שתחייב עליה בדין, א”ל לא משטין היה אלא הקב”ה יתברך היה. לא אשמע ממך.

הלך מעליו ונדמה לבחור ועמד על ימינו של יצחק. א”ל לאן אתה הולך? א”ל ללמוד תורה, א”ל בחייך או במיתתך? א”ל וכי יש אדם שילמוד אחר מיתה? א”ל עלוב בר עלובה כמה תעניות נתענית אמך עד שלא נולדת, והזקן הוא השתטה והוא הולך לשחטך, אמר אעפ”כ לא אעבור על דעת יוצרי ועל צווי אבי,

חזר ואמר לאביו: אבי ראה מה אומר לי זה, א”ל אל תשגיח עליו, שאינו בא אלא ליעף לנו.

Satan met him (Avraham) on the way in the image of an old man.  He said to him:  Where are you going?  He said:  To pray.  He said:  A person who is going to pray, why is he carrying fire and a knife in his hand and wood on his shoulder?  He said:  perhaps we will stay for a day or two and we can slaughter and bake and eat.  He said:  Old man!  Wasn’t I there when the Holy One Blessed Be He told you “take your son…?”  An old man like you will go and destroy a child that was given to him when he was 100 years old?  Haven’t you heard the saying that what was in his hand and he lost he is now taking from others?  And if you say that you might have another son, will you listen to the perpetrator (Satan) and destroy a soul for which you will be accountable?  He said to him:  It was not a perpetrator (Satan) but rather it was the Holy One Blessed Be He.  I will not pay attention to you.

He left him and put on the image of a young man and stood to the right of Yitzhak.  He said to him:  Where are you going?  He said:  To learn Torah.  He said:  Alive or dead?

He said:  Is there such a person that can learn after he is dead?  He said:  You wretched son of a wretched (woman)!  How many sufferings did your mother suffer until you were born?!  And this old man has lost his mind and he is going to slaughter you.  He said:  Even so, I will not go against the mind of my creator and the command of my father.

He turned and said to his father:  Father, look what this one is telling me.  He told him: Do not pay attention to him.  He has come merely to wear us down.

What is the Midrash trying to answer with this story?

What gap in the text is it coming to fill?

What is the Midrash telling us, hidden under the veneer of a simple story?

How is Rashi’s commentary, above, connected to this Midrash?  (Rashi was familiar with Midrash Tanhuma.)

A Bit of Jewish Censorship

Midrash Tanhuma (Buber) Veyera 46

מדרש תנחומא (בובר) פרשת וירא סימן מו 

ויקח אברהם [את עצי העולה וישם על יצחק בנו]. למה היה יצחק דומה למי שהוא יוצא לישרף ועציו על כתפיו.

Abraham took [the wood for the offering-up and placed them upon Yitzhak his son]:  What was Yitzhak like?  Someone who is going to be burnt and his wood is on his shoulder.

 Bereshit Rabbah (Theodore-Albeck) 56

בראשית רבה (תיאודוראלבק) פרשה נו 

(ו) ויקח אברהם את עצי העולה וישם על יצחק בנו כזה שטוען צלובו בכתפו.

Abraham took the wood for the offering-up and placed them upon Yitzhak his son like one who loads his cross on his shoulder.

Midrash Bereshit Rabbah is a Tanaitic midrash, from the period around the Mishna (early centuries CE).  Midrash Tanhuma is later, about 5th-6th century.

What might we learn from comparing the texts in this critical edition of Bereshit Rabbah (it is missing in the regular version) and Tanhuma?

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little son.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
In their temporary failure.
The voices of the two of us met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley in the middle.
The two of us want that the boy or the goat
will not get caught in the process
Of the “Had Gadya” machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back to us
Laughing and crying inside.

Searching for a goat or for a child

Has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

רועה ערבי מחפש גדי  / יהודה עמיחי

רועה ערבי מחפש גדי בהר ציון,
ובהר ממול אני מחפש את בני הקטן.
רועה ערבי ואב יהודי
בכשלונם הזמני.
קולות שנינו נפגשים מעל
לבריכת השולטן בעמק באמצע.
שנינו רוצים שלא יכנסו
הבן והגדי לתוך תהליך
המכונה הנוראה של חד גדיא.

אחר כך מצאנו אותם בין השיחים,
וקולותינו חזרו אלינו ובכו וצחקו בפנים.

החיפושים אחר גדי או אחר בן
היו תמיד
התחלת דת חדשה בהרים האלה.

יהודה עמיחי

Go to Next Class – The Servant

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