Parsha and Manuscript - Vayera: Challenging G-d

Thursday, 14 November, 2019 - 6:45 am

MS. Canonici Or. 62 fol. 13 Vayera.jpgIn the portion of Vayera, the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are accused of being morally depraved and threatened with destruction, upon which Abraham challenges G-d not to destroy the righteous with the wicked and, furthermore, to save the wicked on behalf of the righteous.[1] It states:[2]


And the Lord said, “Since the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great, and since their sin has become very grave, I will descend now and see, whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done; I will wreak destruction upon them; and if not, I will know.”[3] The men went on from there to Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[4] Abraham drew near (vayigash) and said, “Will You destroy the innocent along with the guilty?[5] What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?[6] Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that the innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?”[7] Abraham answered, saying, “Here I commenced to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.[8] What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.”[9]


(Image: MS. Canonici Or. 62 fol. 13)


The question that arises is what was Abraham’s mindset when he approached G-d to challenge Him about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? There are several kinds of mindset that the Midrash suggests Abraham’s confrontation with G-d comprised: battle, appeasement and petition.


Four opinions of sentiment


The Midrash Rabba presents in fact four opinions about the mindset of Abraham in his confrontation with G-d. The Midrash states:


1.     Rabbi Judah said: He drew near for battle.

2.     Rabbi Nechemiah said: He drew near for reconciliation.

3.     The Rabbis said: He drew near for prayer.

4.     Rabbi Elazar said: Interpret it thus: I come, whether it be for battle, conciliation, or prayer.


Three interpretations of the dialogue


There are four ways of interpreting how the statements of Abraham express these sentiments:


1. Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi (1455-1525) explains[10] that verse 23 is battle: ‘Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?’ Verse 28 is appeasement, as Abraham was requesting beyond the letter of the law for a city to be saved: ‘What if the fifty innocent should lack five? Will You destroy the whole city for want of the five?” And He answered, “I will not destroy if I find forty-five there.” Verses 29-32 refers to prayer, asking G-d to save four cities on behalf of forty cities, ten in each, three cities on behalf of 30 righteous people, two cities on behalf of 20 people and one city on behalf of 10 people.


2. 17th century Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halberstat from Jessnitz explains in his commentary on the Midrash Nezer Hakodesh[11] that the whole text is made up of appeasement and prayer: appeasement for the righteous to be saved, although imperfect, and prayer for the wicked to be saved alongside the righteous, beyond the letter of the law.


3. Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn of Horodna, known as Maharzu (d. 1862) explains:[12] Verse 24 is prayer: ‘What if there should be fifty innocent within the city.’ Verse 25 is battle: ‘Far be it from You to do such a thing?’ Verse 27 is appeasement: ‘Behold, now, I have commenced to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.’


4. Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe, explains:[13] Verse 23 is battle: ‘Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?’ Verse 25 is appeasement, as appeasement usually entails a form of praise: ‘Far be it from You to do such a thing!’ Verse 27 is prayer: ‘Behold, now, I have commenced to speak to my Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.’[14]


MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188 Vayera.jpg(Image: MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188)




Following the opinion of Rabbi Elazar in the Midrash, the above sentiments are reflected not only in the wording but also in the opening word: ‘And he approached’ (vayigash). This can be found in the following places: In Genesis, the verse:[15] ‘Then Judah approached Joseph (vayigash)’ is used in the context of all three sentiments:[16] appeasement and prayer as indicated by the request:[17] ‘So now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord, and may the boy go up with his brothers.’ Battle is expressed by Judah’s aggressive behaviour when he approached Joseph.[18] Similarly, appeasement is expressed in Joshua, when Calev requested the inheritance that was promised him:[19] ‘Then the children of Israel approached Joshua.’


In II Samuel, battle is expressed in the verse:[20] ‘Joab and the troops with him approached in battle against the Arameans, who fled before him.’ In I Kings, prayer is expressed in the verse:[21] ‘The prophet Elijah approached and said, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that You, O Lord, are G-d.”’[22]


In summary, all three dispositions are found to be expressed in the speech of Abraham to G-d in opposing the destruction of the city of Sodom, as well as in the meaning of the introductory word: ‘vayigash’ – ‘And he approached.’




In the 12th century, Rashi appears to follow the view of Rabbi Elazar that Abraham employs not just a single approach to G-d, but all three sentiments:


And Abraham drew near: We find the expression ‘approaching’ (ננש - nigash) for war:[23] ‘So Joab drew near unto the battle;’ ‘approaching’ for placating:[24] ‘And Judah came near to him [and said, Oh, my lord];’ and ‘approaching’ for prayer:[25] ‘And Elijah the prophet came near.’ For all these, Abraham entered  (nichnas) to speak harshly (l’daber kashot), and to placate (piyus), and to pray (v’l’tefilah).[26]


MS. Oppenheim 14 Fol. 18 Vayera.jpg(Image: MS. Oppenheim 14 Fol. 18)




When looking closely at Rashi in the manuscripts, however, there are two variations in the manuscripts compared to the printed edition. These two variations appear to present additional insight into the manner in which Abraham confronted G-d.


Entered or approached


In the printed edition after presenting how the word ‘vayigash’ (and he approached) refers to battle, conciliation and prayer, Rashi concludes: ‘For all these, Abraham entered  (nichnas) to speak harshly and to placate (piyus) and to pray.[27] Although the word under discussion and used in the Torah is that Abraham approached - ‘vayigash,’ the printed edition writes ‘entered’ – ‘nichnas’ instead of ‘approach.’ In all the Oxford manuscripts, however, instead of: ‘For all these, Abraham entered (nichnas),’ it writes: ‘For all these, Abraham approached (nigash), using the same term as the verse (vayigash) and as Rashi uses at the beginning of the commentary. This consistency is how it is found in: CCC MS 165, MS. Oppenheim 14,[28] MS. Oppenheim 34,[29] MS. Oppenheim 35,[30] MS. Canonici Or. 62, MS. Arch. Selden A. 47,[31] as well as MS Leipzig 1.[32]


Conciliation omitted


A further variation in the Rashi manuscripts is that in the printed edition it states that Abraham approached G-d for three purposes: battle, conciliation (piyus) and prayer. This is how it is found in: MS. Canonici Or. 62 and MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 188.


In other manuscripts, however, including CCC MS 165, MS. Oppenheim 14,[33] MS. Oppenheim 34,[34] MS. Oppenheim 35,[35] as well as 13th century MS Leipzig 1, the word Piyus (conciliation) in the second half of the commentary is omitted, stating only that Abraham approached G-d for battle and prayer - but not conciliation. In MS. Arch. Selden A. 47,[36] instead of Piyus (appeasement), it states ‘l'techina’ – entreaty, which is another word for prayer.[37]


And Judah came near to him – conciliation or battle?


A further difficulty in the Rashi commentary is the contradiction between the Rashi commentary about the challenge of Abraham against the destruction of Sodom that states the verse:[38] ‘And Judah approached Joseph’ as being for conciliation, whereas later in Genesis,[39] commenting on the verse itself, it says it’s an expression of harsh language (battle). Rabbi Shabbethai ben Joseph Bass (1641–1718)[40] argues that there is a mistake and the correct version should not include ‘And Judah came near to Joseph’ as an example of conciliation. In the printed version and all the manuscripts, however, the verse included for appeasement is: ‘And Judah came near to him.’


Approaching – literal or figurative


In attempting to explain the commentary of Rashi as found in the manuscripts and printed edition, we will first explain the term ‘approaching’ in relation to the subsequent content of the speech of Abraham.


Literal or non literal


The first possible meaning of ‘approach’ is literally moving from one place to another.[41] Abrabanel and other commentaries, however, reject this in the context of Abraham approaching G-d to challenge the destruction of Sodom, as it states prior to approaching G-d:[42] ‘Abraham was still standing before the Lord.’ A second interpretation is suggested by Rabbi David Kimchi,[43] followed by Rabbi Shmuel ben Yitzchak Yaffe Ashkenazi of Constantinople (1525-1595),[44] that the word ‘approach’ reflects the content of the subsequent dialogue: prayer, appeasement and battle. Maimonides[45] however explains it as a statement of prophecy, not connected with the content of the speech that follows. Rabbi Isaac ben Judah Abarbanel (1437-1508)[46] and 18th century Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halberstat from Jessnitz[47] maintain that Abraham did not actually utter harsh words (battle) to G-d at all but rather ‘battle’ refers to Abraham’s will[48] to fight on behalf of the people of Sodom.[49] The term ‘approach’ is his inner will to fight for the people of Sodom, expressed through prayer and appeasement, to arouse G-d’s mercy and avert the Divine attribute of severity. Similarly, 19th century Rabbi Yechezkel Feivel of Vilnius (1755–1833) argues,[50]followed by Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn,[51] that the expression ‘approach’ refers to an awakening of the heart for all three sentiments - battle, appeasement and prayer - separate from the actual speech that followed.


In the first approach above there is only a single description of the dialogue, while according to the latter three commentaries, there are two parts to the description of Abraham’s dialogue: a. the ‘entering’ into dialogue and b. the actual dialogue. According to Maimonides the ‘entering’ is a state of prophecy, according to Abrabanel and Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halberstat it refers to an inner will to fight, and according to Rabbi Yechezkel Feivel and the Rebbe it refers to an emotional preparedness for all three sentiments: battle, appeasement and prayer.


Explaining the manuscripts


Based on the two ways of understanding the parts of the dialogue of Abraham, one can explain the difference in the manuscript versions of Rashi compared to the printed edition. It would appear that the change of the terminology from ‘approach’ to ‘enter’ reflects whether there is a distinction between the ‘dialogue’ and ‘entering’ into dialogue. The manuscripts that retain the word ‘approach’ (nigash) throughout the commentary don’t make a distinction between the two, while the printed edition that changes the terminology makes this distinction.


Appeasement as prayer


A reason for omitting appeasement ‘piyus’ in the manuscripts might be due to the idea that although the Midrash puts them in a separate category, in the context of the dialogue of Abraham, appeasement and prayer can be used interchangeably. One can categorise four aspects of appeasement relevant to the dialogue between Abraham and G-d: a. Appeasement, as different from prayer,[52] referring to when there is reason to be kind or harsh; one appeases the benefactor to veer to the side of kindness.Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halberstat suggests that this is indicated in the overall request for the righteous of Sodom to be saved despite imperfections, as opposed to the wicked, for which Abraham prayed for to be saved. b. Appeasement as asking for the benefactor to go beyond the letter of the law. Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi suggests this is alluded to in Abraham’s request for G-d to save Sodom on behalf of just nine righteous people in each city, adding G-d amongst them. c. Appeasement including praising the benefactor. The Rebbe suggests that this was the intention of Abraham when he says: ‘Far be it from You to do such a thing?’ d. Appeasement as the same as prayer and used interchangeably.[53]


Appeasement as undeserved prayer


While Rabbi Yechiel Michel Halberstat makes a distinction between prayer and appeasement – the latter for moderation, the former outright kindness - Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi does not agree with this distinction, as he suggests appeasement is also a request for undeserved kindness beyond the letter of the law. This definition would allow us to place appeasement and prayer in the same category – asking for G-d to act beyond the letter of the law. The definition of prayer as a request beyond the letter of the law is found in the Midrash on Deuteronomy regarding Moses’ prayer to be allowed to enter Israel:[54] ‘I entreated (va’etchanan) the Lord at that time.’ The Midrash comments that the nature of the prayer of Moses was a request for an undeserved gift, thus using the word ‘entreated’ (va’etchanan).[55]


In this context, then, the notion of appeasement – asking for something undeserved, as suggested by Rabbi Elijah Mizrachi, is the same as prayer and may be used interchangeably. This is indeed found in the Zohar[56] that omits appeasement and only uses the term ‘entreating’ (techinah):


Rabbi Yochanan said:[57] come and see the difference between Noah and the righteous of Israel after Noah. Noah did not protect his generation and did not pray for them as did Abraham, for as soon as G-d said to Abraham that the cry of Sodom and Gomorrah has become great,[58] Abraham immediately approached G-d and said etc. and increased in entreating (tachnunim) before the Holy One, blessed be He, until he asked whether he finds ten righteous people that would atone for the whole city on their behalf.


For this reason, one may suggest, the manuscripts that omit appeasement (piyus) do not indicate that there was no appeasement in the dialogue of Abraham with G-d but rather both are included in the single word ‘prayer.’ This is further suggested by the version as found in MS. Arch. Selden A. 47,[59] where instead of the word piyus (appeasement), it writes ‘L'techina’ – entreaty. This suggests all of Abraham’s requests were in fact for G-d to go beyond the letter of the law - an undeserved request, either due to the imperfection (counterfeit) of the righteous of Sodom themselves,[60] or because G-d had to be included with the nine righteous in each place, or for the wicked to be saved along with the righteous, according to the opinion that the righteous were indeed righteous.


Avoid contradiction


A further reason for the omission may be, as argued by Rabbi Shabbethai ben Joseph Bass,[61] that according to Rashi’s commentary[62] on the statement:[63] ‘And Judah approached Joseph,’ hagasha (approaching) refers in fact to harsh language, not appeasement. For this reason, the manuscripts may have omitted the word ‘piyus’ in the second half of the commentary, in order not to highlight this contradiction.




In conclusion, we first presented a dispute whether the disposition of Abraham in his dialogue with G-d contained a single sentiment or all three sentiments: battle, appeasement and prayer. Based on the view of Rabbi Elazar, followed by Rashi, that all three were part of the dialogue, we posed a question why the change in terminology in the printed edition from the manuscripts from ‘approach’ to ‘enter’ in describing the dialogue. We argued that Rashi in the printed edition follows the views found in the commentary on the Midrash and the Torah that there is a distinction between the mindset of Abraham and what we find in the actual dialogue. We finally argued that in the actual dialogue, based on the version in the manuscripts that omits the word ‘appeasement,’ prayer and appeasement can be used interchangeably, as both suggest a request for an undeserved gift, as is indeed the case with Abraham. This is since according the Midrash, a distinct element of his righteousness was that he was praying and did not give up in asking G-d to save the city of Sodom, despite the fact that, due to their total corruption, they did not appear to have been worthy of saving.




[1] Zohar 1:67:2:4.

[2] Genesis 18:20-28.

[3] Genesis 18:20-21.

[4] Genesis 18:22.

[5] Genesis 18:23.

[6] Genesis 18:24.

[7] Genesis 18:25.

[8] Genesis 18:27.

[9] Genesis 18:28.

[10] Mizrachi on Genesis 18:23:1.

[11] Genesis Rabba 49:8.

[12] Maharzu on Genesis Rabba 49:8.

[13] Likkutei Sichot vol. 10, p. 55.

[14] This would follow the order as found in the Midrash: battle, conciliation and prayer.

[15] Genesis 44:18.

[16] Maskil L’david by Italian Rabbi David Pardo (1719-1792) maintains that Genesis 44:18: ‘And Judah came near’ is an expression of battle and prayer. Rashi (Genesis 18:23) is of the opinion it is conciliation. Rashi on Genesis 44:18 writes that it is a language of harshness (battle). The change in Rashi’s opinion and the opinion of Maskil L’david would seem to reflect that Genesis 44:18: ‘And Judah came near’ is in fact an expression of all three combined (Likkutei Sichot vol. 10, p. 56, footnote 10).

[17] Genesis 44:33. See Maharzu on Genesis Rabba 49:5.

[18] Genesis Rabba 93:6 and 7.

[19] Joshua 14:6.

[20] II Samuel 10:13.

[21] I Kings 18:36-37.

[22] It is also used in the same chapter in I Kings (18:21): Elijah approached (vayigash) all the people and said, “How long will you keep hopping between two opinions? If the Lord is G-d, follow Him, and if Baal, follow him!”

[23] II Samuel 10:13.

[24] Genesis: 44:18.

[25] 1 Kings 18:36.

[26] Genesis Rabbah 49:8.

[27] Genesis Rabbah 49:8.

[28] Fol. 18.

[29] Fol. 12.

[30] Fol. 11.

[31] Fol. 72a.

[32] This question is posed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Likkutei Sichot 10 (p. 56): why does Rashi change from the wording used in the Torah. In footnote 12 he also mentions that the manuscripts in fact don’t have this change. Interestingly, in many of the manuscripts the word used is ‘nigash,’ while in CCC MS 165 the word is the exact same as the word used in the Torah (Genesis 18:23) ‘vayigash.’

[33] Fol. 18.

[34] Fol. 12.

[35] Fol. 11.

[36] Fol. 72a.

[37] Rashi on Deuteronomy 3:23.

[38] Genesis 44:18.

[39] Rashi on Genesis 44:18: ‘and let your wrath not be kindled: From here you learn that he spoke to him harshly.’

[40] Sifsei Chachamim on Genesis 18:23.

[41] This may be found in Numbers (32:16): They (children of Gad and Reuven) approached Moses and said, "We will build sheepfolds for our livestock here and cities for our children.’

[42] Genesis 18:22.

[43] Radak on Genesis 13:23.

[44] Yefe To’ar on Genesis Rabba 49:8.

[45] Guide for the Perplexed 1:18:2.

[46] Abrabanel on Genesis 18:23.

[47] Nezer Hakodesh (published1719) on Genesis Rabba 49:8.

[48] Biur Maharip on Genesis Rabba 49:8: Awakening of the heart to fight.

[49] Abrabanel: Nigash l’hilachem ba’adam.

[50] Biur Maharip on Genesis Rabba 49:8.

[51] Likkutei Sichot vol. 10, p. 55.

[52] Prayer is a request for outright kindness.

[53] This is indicated in Biur Maharip on Genesis Rabba 49:8 where he writes that ‘Hagasha (approaching) refers to awakening of the heart for battle and similarly hagasha for appeasement and prayer (v’chen hagasha l’piyus v’l’tfillah),’ placing the categories into two: 1. battle and 2. appeasement and prayer.

[54] Deuteronomy 3:23.

[55] Deuteronomy Rabba 2:1.

[56] Zohar 1:67:2:4.

[57] Rabbi Yochanan is the same teacher as the author of the commentary quoted in Deuteronomy Rabba (2:1) that prayer (va’etchanan/techina) is the asking for an undeserved gift (matnat chinam).

[58] Genesis 18:23.

[59] Fol. 72a.

[60] Genesis Rabbi 49:9. The author of this statement in the Midrash is also Rabbi Yochanan. See footnote above 64.

[61] Sifsei Chachamim maintains that the correct verse should be from Joshua (14:6), as found in some editions of the Midrash Rabba: ‘Then the children of Israel drew near until Joshua.’

[62] Rashi on Genesis 44:18.

[63] Genesis 44:18.


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