A Random Walk With Rashi: Gesundheit

At long last, our Rashi study group has finally turned the corner, and are into our first verse of Genesis chapter 21. What could possibly be bothering us about the text at this point?

The answer – plenty. If it were anything less, this would have been a Torah tweet. See for yourself.

Genesis 21:1
Hashem remembered Sarah as He had said; and Hashem did for Sarah as He had spoken.

Let the verse just sink in for a while. Consider the p’shat, or straightforward meaning. Consider also the more subtle meanings it may suggest, perhaps in view of its sentence structure and choice of words, to say nothing of the context in which it appears – post Abimelech, pre Isaac.

Where to begin.

Perhaps first, we note that the Hebrew word that is translated here as ‘remember’ is not as simple or straightforward as one might think. The word itself, pakod, can be translated variously as to intervene, to attend to, to take note, or as here, to remember.

In that sense, it is quite distinct from the word ‘ozeir’, which we might expect in this part of the story, and which itself is commonly translated as ‘help’, as found in the Avot (ancestors) – the first of 19 blessings in the Amidah. Anyone who has been to shul over the past 40 years will instantly recall the allure of this verse in which we chant toward its end “melech ozeir umoshia umagen,” which the Reform siddur Mishkan Tefilah translates as “Sovereign, Deliverer, Helper and Shield”. (Note to self, at our next study group I’ll need to figure out why the order as translated (with ‘helper’ being third) seems different than the Hebrew itself (with ozeir, being second)).

Not only the word pakod, but the entire verse is of the type that tends to result in subtle but significant differences between the translations of various texts. For instance, the JPS (Jewish Publication Society) Torah Commentary translates the verse as “The Lord took note of Sarah as he had promised, ….. ”. According to the JPS, the same idiom (took note) is used elsewhere in Torah, at times in a similar sense, including in connection with the birth of Samuel (1 Sam 2:21) – and interestingly, in both cases the newly born infant is a ‘child of destiny’. In this regard, we are told, the Hebrew root word p-k-d, connotes the direct involvement or intervention of G-d in human affairs.

Speaking of different slants on the subject, take a peek at the commentary of the 15th century Italian scholar known as “the Sforno” (born Italy, 1470). The Sforno does not equate G-d’s intervention as helping Sarah to give birth, per se, but rather he tells us that the birth of a son, in particular, “is contrary to the usual occurrence when an older woman gives birth, for the majority of such births are females. “ Sforno is in the category of commentators who focus first on the p’shat, though he is also known to offer expositions on the text that are scientific or philosophical. Query whether he was correct then, or for that matter correct now, regarding the preponderance of females born to older mothers. And how could he possibly overlook the apparent infertility of Sarah to this point, by focusing instead on her surprising conception of a boy, rather than girl ?

And finally, we wonder, why does this verse appear now?

Perhaps as the turning point after all that has occurred, and before all that is to come. It seems, simply, that Abraham has finally passed his many tests since leaving Haran – anywhere between 10 and 12 of them, depending on who’s counting, and don’t get me started on which 10 to 12 scenes actually constitute tests. But Abraham is clearly, and about time, finally able to confirm his faith in G-d, to the point where he and Sarah can now take the next step toward building a nation.

Heady stuff, but back to the JPS commentary, which suggests that the present position of chapters 20 followed by 21 is intentional and purposeful. The relief of Sarah’s infertility through the birth of a son is juxtaposed with the removal of infirmity that afflicted Abimelech’s household, thereby enabling the women to give birth. These related motifs are underscored, we are told, by the use of the name Sarah to both end the preceding chapter, and in the next breath, to begin the next – in a way recalling the seemless way in which we transition between reading the end of Torah and returning again to the start – reminding us that there is no end to Torah, only the cycles of its repetition.

So with all this to work with, what do you think might be bothering Rashi about the verse?

Knowing our group, it is probably none of the above. We have been meeting for over 15 years (though a mere blink of the eye in Torah years) and yet it seems at times that we would be better off throwing darts when it comes to predicting whether Rashi has any concern at all about a verse, and if so, what that concern might be. That is probably what keeps us on our kadosh, kadosh, kadosh toes, even these 900 or so years after his death.

But we’re gluttons. We’ll take one more try.

Perhaps the redundancy in this verse troubles him. (G-d did this as he had said, G-d did that as he had spoken). Yeah, that’s it. Redundancy. On the one hand, it fits perfectly with what we have seen over the past several weeks, where we found meaning in either the use of identical words within different verses, or the use of slightly different words where we’d think identical ones should be.

Whether redundant, identical, or slightly different, all such words and phrases can be used as an educational tool, particularly in Torah. We wouldn’t be pondering this verse today if it had been more succinct and clear. What better than to have two portions of a single verse be redundant at this point of the story. A veritable gold mine of interpretation.

Right? Wrong. Take a look.

[the Torah] put this passage next to [the incident of Abimelech] to teach you that whoever seeks mercy by praying for his friend, and he himself, i.e., the one praying, needs that same thing for which he is praying on behalf of his friend, he, i.e., the one praying, is answered first, “Abraham prayed, etc.” and next to it “Hashem had remembered Sarah,” which implies that He had already remembered her before He healed Abimelech.


So it seems that we have been overthinking things again. Rashi’s comments are more direct and intriguing than most of our questions – classic p’shat. Rashi concludes, essentially, that where a person (such as Abraham) prays for another person, yet needs the same relief himself, that G-d is inclined to provide that relief – first to the person praying, and then to the person being prayed for.

Midrash (and Plaut confirms) that this represents the first occurrence of one person praying on behalf of another – in effect, an intercessory prayer.

In the bigger context, this scene seems to provide a biblical version of paper, scissors, stone, in which each player scratches the back of another, and no one thing gets done without the others. In our case, Abraham intercedes, G-d intervenes, Abimelech relieves, and Sarah conceives – all in no particular order, but each seeming to require or reflect the others.

Zornberg suggests that “the midrash describes the effect of such a prayer; a knot of resistant reality is loosened by Abraham. The definitions that separate self from other are swept away, a law of nature dissolves, widening possibility. As a result, not Avimelech alone but Abraham himself finally becomes fertile.”

So just who or what was achieved by Abraham’s prayer, was it Abimelech’s congestion, or Sarah’s conception, or was it perhaps Abraham’s infertility. And if so which came first, or perhaps did all these ends come together, as would the strands of a rope, by loosening a single knot that had existed between them.

Leave it to Zornberg.

Leave it to us as well, where we will pick up this week with the second part of Rashi’s commentary to the current verse. Stay tuned, it’s a biblical doozy.