A Random Walk With Rashi: Hardy Har Har

We are still up to our biblical eyeballs in the first verse of Chapter 21.

This is big stuff. It has been 25 years since Abram and Sarai (as they were then known) were first told by G-d to leave their home in Haran, for a place that G-d would show them. They are still wondering where that place may be, and more importantly, whether they will be given a son to carry on. With Abraham now 100 years old and Sarah 90, the question is beginning to take on some urgency. Even a foremother’s patience can only last so long.

And it’s not that we haven’t been reminded, or they haven’t been thinking about it. From the very moment Sarai was first introduced to us, in Genesis 11:22, we were bluntly informed that “Sarai was barren, she had no child.”

Later, at Genesis 16:1 we are reminded that “Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children.” Leading to the story of Hagar. It’s got to wear on a gal.

Time and again they have implored G-d for a sign or answer – just give us an heir, or tell us who it might be – might it be Abraham’s good-for-nothing nephew Lot? Or the son Ishmael, that Abraham begat with Hagar, or perhaps even his manservant Eliezer? Time and again their patience and faith have been tested, and each time G-d has said no, not him or not yet, but there will be a time.

This is their time. And we’re going to take ours.

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

We learned last week, from the first comments of Rashi regarding this verse, that if you pray for another, while needing the same relief that you pray for, that your prayer will be answered as well.

We see this concept played out elsewhere as well. Think forward to Deuteronomy 16:14, where we are told “You shall rejoice in your festival, with your son and your daughter, your male slave and female slave, the [family of the ] Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow of your communities. Rashi tells us (yes, he seems to have gotten beyond Genesis) that this verse teaches us that if we take care of the latter four (the Levite, stranger, orphan and widow), that G-d will take care of our own (our children and servants).

So we learned from this that Abraham prayed for the relief of Abimelech, and was given relief of his own, finally, in the form of fertility, conception and soon, the birth of Isaac.

You’d think that would be sufficient. Dayenu. But wait, there’s more.

With childbirth. Where is the “saying,” and where is the “speaking”? The “saying” referred to is “And G-d said, “Indeed, your wife Sarah, etc..’” The “speaking’ referred to is, “The word of Hashem came to Abraham.” At the Covenant Between the Parts, and there it says “That one will not inherit you, etc.” And He brought forth the heir of Abraham from Sarah.


We should have figured. Rashi is indeed bothered by the differences between “said” and “spoken”. The first phrase, ka’sher amar (as he spoke) refers to G-d’s discussion of Sarah’s eventual conception (in Genesis 17:19), while the second phrase, ka’sher debare (as he said) refers to G-d’s discussion of the birth of a son itself.

A single verse having two different words for essentially the same thought – this has 11th century French Rabbinic vintner from the town of Troyes written all over it. By the way, with no French speakers in our group, we have struggled for years with the pronunciation of Troyes. At times we’ll have it rhyme with toy or toys, or with duh, or even duvet, since that sounds particularly French – we’ve had it rhyme with almost everything but Duluth. More often than not we just mumble the word, or replace it with ‘northern France’. Not surprising I suppose, since Midwesterners can’t agree on how to pronounce Nicolet, let alone spell it.

Rashi decides that both ‘said’ and ‘spoke’ refer to instances in which G-d had communicated previously – with Abraham. This makes some sense, even though at first blush the verse can leave the reader with the impression that it was Sarah that Gd had spoken with. She has certainly been in the vicinity when G-d or His angels have dropped by, referring to the scene in Genesis 18:12 where Sarah laughed to herself when she overheard the angel’s news, while also wondering how she could possibly conceive with her husband being so old. When her thoughts were recast by G-d to Abraham, G-d noticably changes the story ever so slightly, to the point where he had her wondering instead about herself being so old.

As an aside, this very scene is oftened used to teach us that it is permissible to use a white lie, when it comes to maintaining peace in the family. According to Talmud, referring back to this scene – “Great is the cause of peace, seeing that for its sake even the Holy One modified a statement” (Y’vamot 65b).

So did G-d speak and spoke to Abraham or Sarah?

Interestingly, and perhaps not surprisingly, the Women’s Torah Commentary takes a somewhat different slant on our current verse. They tell us that even though the angels that had been sent by G-d had spoken with Abraham, though in the presence of Sarah, they conclude that in our current verse G-d actually remembers only Sarah.

Who is correct, you might ask? You decide. I’m not going there. I know what side of the matzo my maror is on.

Beyond, or regardless, of who G-d spoke to, or when, Rashi’s comments imply something bigger – given his reference to Genesis 15:1 – the “covenant of the pieces”. This scene is itself critical to the story, and most certainly plays into the birth of Isaac as well (what doesn’t these days?).

The scene includes a conversation between G-d and Abraham in which the two seem to be on different wavelengths. After Abraham has just rescued Lot in the war between the kings, Rashi tells us that Abraham is worried that his success in battle might become his reward from G-d, in lieu of an heir. G-d begins by assuring Abraham that “I will be your shield (leading to our eventual ‘magen Abraham, v’ezrat Sarah’), your reward will be very great”.

Either not hearing, or not content, with this, Abraham drills down further, asking point blank “who will inherit me, might it be my servant Eliezer?” G-d assures him that it will not be Eliezer, but will indeed be a son, born to him with Sarah. G-d then instructs Abraham to take part in forming a ‘covenant’ between them. Not just any old covenant, mind you, but rather a “capital C”, G-d like covenant or ritual (berit ben ha-betarim, or covenant between the sacrificial pieces) in which Abraham was instructed to sacrifice a certain number of various animals, and separate them into halves that were laid out in a path. At that point Abraham fell into a deep sleep and G-d sent a firebolt down the path. Very odd, but it gets your attention – both at the time, and to later readers of Torah, and was understood as a way of sealing the deal (e.g., to “cut” a contract).

Finally, after having thoroughly nailed Genesis 21:1, we proceeded to dip our toes into verse 2.

Genesis 21:2
Sarah conceived and bore a son unto Abraham in his old age, at the appointed time of which G-d had spoken with him.

So it’s all comes down to this. Three little words וַתַּהַר וַתֵּלֶד שָׂרָה that change the world, turn our story in a new direction, and in many ways determine our fate – v’tahar (she became pregnant) v’taled (she gave birth) Sarah.

We were just about to pause and let this sink in over the next week, when we notice that v’tahar is built on the same word as ‘har’, the word that refers to a mountain (e.g., Har Zion).

Pregnancy, mountain. We just can’t stop ourselves.

(Photo: Daquella manera)