A basic principle in the sages’ worldview is “measure for measure.” History repeats itself in fixed, constantly replicating structures. This exegetical principle allows for, on the one hand, the interpretation of events in the present by means of literary and historical models from the past and, on the other hand, simplifies the stories of the patriarchs to a skeletal construction that can be replicated and adapted to changing realities.
In the example before us, the midrash deciphers, by means of this literary tool, the story of Abraham’s hospitality to three strangers, which appears in Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24), and sheds new light on a literal reading of the biblical text.
On seeing the three strangers, who are actually God’s emissaries, Abraham immediately invites them home. He offers them water and shade, bread and an opportunity for them to wash their feet. He selects a calf to be slaughtered for the strangers’ meal, and personally serves it to them. In the following midrash, God delivers a monologue to Abraham after the strangers leave the patriarch’s tent.
“God told Abraham, ‘You said [to your three guests], “Let now a little water be fetched” [Genesis 18:4]. I hereby vow that I shall repay that debt to your children, as it is written, “Then sang Israel this song: Spring up, O well, sing ye unto it [Numbers 21:17].’ This is what happens in the Sinai desert during the journey to Canaan, but what about what happens in the Promised Land? It is written, ‘a land of brooks of water’ [Deuteronomy 8:7]. And what about the future? ‘And it shall come to pass in that day, that living waters shall go out [from Jerusalem]’ [Zechariah 14:8]” (Bereisheet Rabbah 48:10).
God tells Abraham that he regards the water the patriarch pours for his guests as a debt that God must repay in the future to Abraham’s descendants. The repayment is to be carried out in three installments. The first will be during the Israelites’ wanderings on the way to the Promised Land; the payment will be executed through the well concerning which the Song of the Well is sung by the Israelites in gratitude.
The second installment will be paid after the Children of Israel enter Canaan, concerning which the following promise is made: “For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths, springing forth in valleys and hills” (Deut. 8:7). The last installment will be paid in the more distant future, in the messianic era, when fresh water will flow from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem as promised by the prophet Zechariah.
The exegetist continues to interpret the story of Abraham’s hospitality, breaking down the tale into its different elements. In juxtaposition with each element, the exegetist presents three relevant verses from the Bible relating to the Israelites’ trek on the way to Canaan, to the period following their entry into the Promised Land and to the more distant future, respectively, thereby creating a virtuoso midrashic composition.
The midrash continues: “You said, ‘and wash [your feet]’ [Gen. 18:4]. I hereby vow that I shall repay that debt to your children, as it is written, ‘Then washed I thee with water’ [Ezekiel 16:9]. This is what happens in the Sinai desert ... But what about what happens in the Promised Land? It is written, ‘Wash you, make you clean’ [Isaiah 1:16]. And what about the future? It is written, ‘when the Lord shall have washed away the filth [of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof]’ [Isaiah 4:4].
“You said, ‘and recline yourselves under the tree” [Gen. 18:4]. I hereby vow that I shall repay that debt to your children, as it is written, ‘He spread a cloud for a screen’ [Psalms 105:39].’ This is what happens in the Sinai desert ... But what about the Promised Land? It is written, ‘Ye shall dwell in booths [seven days]’ [Leviticus 23:42]. And what about the future? It is written, ‘And there shall be a pavilion [booth] for a shadow [in the day-time from the heat, and for a refuge and for a covert from storm and from rain]’ [Isaiah 4:6].
“You said, ‘And I will fetch a morsel of bread’ [Gen. 18:5]. I hereby vow that I shall repay that debt to your children, as it is written, ‘Behold, I will cause to rain bread [from heaven] for you’ [Exodus 16:4]. This is what happens in the Sinai desert ... But what about what happens in the Promised Land? It is written, ‘a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey’ [Deut. 8:8]. And what about the future? It is written, ‘May he be as a rich cornfield in the land’ [Ps. 72:16].
“You ‘ran unto the herd [and fetched a calf tender and good]’ [Gen. 18:7]. I hereby vow that I shall repay that debt to your children, as it is written, ‘and [God] brought across quails [from the sea]’ [Numbers 11:31].’ This is what happens in the Sinai desert ... But what about the Promised Land? It is written, ‘[Now the children of Reuben and the children of Gad had] a very great multitude of cattle’ [Num. 32:1]. And what about the future? It is written, ‘And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow [and two sheep]’ [Isaiah 7:21].
“[God said to Abraham:] In response to, ‘and he [Abraham] stood by them [under the tree]’ [Gen. 18:8], it is written, ‘And the Lord went before them [by day in a pillar of cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light]’ [Exod. 13:21]. This is what happens in the Sinai desert ... But what about the Promised Land? It is written, ‘God standeth in the congregation of God’ (Ps. 82:1). And what about the future? It is written, ‘The breaker is gone up before them; they have broken forth and passed on, by the gate, and are gone out thereat; and their king is passed on before them, and the Lord at the head of them’ [Michah 2:13].”
The kaleidoscope of symmetrical verses presents Jewish history from Abraham’s time to the messianic era – in a format of “measure for measure.” Abraham sits God’s emissaries down in the shade and, in return, God will provide shade for Abraham’s descendants in the desert, in Canaan and in the messianic period. This pattern is repeated as reward for the bread and meat Abraham serves them, and as a response to his personally serving them their food.
But there is another symmetry at work here; it is connected to a literal reading of the story in Genesis. Throughout the Bible, God grants gifts to his children – actual gifts during the journey through the desert, gifts connected to Canaan, and the promise of gifts in the messianic era. God hosts them in his world, provides them with water, bread and shade, and personally serves them. When Abraham hosts God’s three emissaries, this is a unique opportunity for a mortal to host God – by hosting his emissaries.
The symmetry the midrash creates between, on the one hand, Abraham’s hospitality in his tent and, on the other, God’s hospitality in the desert and in the Promised Land, and the promise of his hospitality in the messianic period – all this turns this week’s Torah portion into a concentrated textual capsule from which all biblical theology flows.
The relationship between God and Israel in the Bible’s 24 books is portrayed as a mutual relationship that begins at the opening of Parashat Vayera. The watershed between Abraham’s hospitality toward God’s emissaries and God’s repayment of this debt is literary – separating the original from its replications – and theological – separating the act of free will expressed in the pure grace of Abraham’s hospitality, and the chain of actions that God feels obligated to carry out toward the Children of Israel and which he continues to carry out to this very day.
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