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Divrei Torah

Vayera and its haftara: a connection

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Every haftara, they say, has something to do with the Torah reading it follows. So what does the haftara of parashas Vayera have to do with Vayera?

A number of answers are offered, but I'd like to share one based on something I heard from R. Moshe Scheinerman (Brooklyn, N.Y.), circa 1997, in the name of Tzipora Levin, the wife of R. Arye Levin.

First, a recap of the haftara:

It begins with a short story about a pauper who had nothing to pay her debts with. All she had, she told Elisha, was a small amount of oil. Borrow empty receptacles, said Elisha, close your door, and pour the oil into the receptacles. She did, until there were no receptacles left. She told her son to bring another. He said there were no more, and the oil stopped flowing. Go sell your oil and repay your debts, said Elisha.

Then comes a longer story about Elisha's hostess. She had no son, and Elisha, unbidden, promised her one. No, don't lie to me, said she; but indeed she gave birth soon after. One day, the son died with little warning, and his mother went to seek Elisha. Why are you going? asked her husband. All is well, she replied. Elisha saw her coming from a distance and sent his man to see what was wrong. All is well, she told him also. But to Elisha she said, Didn't I say not to tease me? And Elisha understood. Take my stick, he told his man, and place it on the boy. Greet no one on the way there! But the woman said, I will not leave you; so Elisha went with her. His man arrived first, placed the stick on the boy; but the boy did not rise. Elisha arrived, prayed, lay on the boy, and thus revived him. The mother was reunited with her son.

The Talmud tells us that "a covenant is made with lips": saying something can make it true. There were no more empty receptacles to accept the flowing oil! But until the boy said "there are no more receptacles", the oil flowed. His words made the oil stop flowing. A covenant is made with the lips.

Elisha's hostess understood this idea. She understood that she should not say her son is dead, because that would make it more real. And so she said only "all is well". Even on reaching Elisha, all she said was "didn't I say not to tease me?".

Elisha, too, understood this, but his assistant did not, or didn't care enough. He violated his master's injunction against greeting people on the way and in fact, the commentaries say, told people he was on his way to revive the dead. "Going to revive the dead", he said — so the boy was dead. And so his master had to follow in his wake and revive the boy.

And now let's examine the beginning of parashas Vayera. Angels come to visit Abraham. One of them tells him that, a year later, he (the angel) will return and Sarah will have a boy. Sarah laughs and says "can I become pregnant after being worn out? and my husband is so old". God then indicates Sarah was wrong to do so, and promises he'll return in a year and Sarah will have a boy.

Wait a second. First, the angel promised he'll return. Then, God promised he'll return. Which is it? But Sarah's statement intervened. Once she expressed that she can't give birth, the angel's return would not suffice to allow her to give birth: God himself, so to speak, had to return. See the parallel to the haftara! The angel was supposed to return to Sarah, but God had to; Elisha's assistant was supposed to revive the baby, but Elisha had to.

A covenant is made with the lips.

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