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Parashat Vayeirah

November 16, 2016

by Cantor Sandy Horowitz

“`Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run”
Bruce Springsteen

Parashat Vayera begins, “Vayisa einav vayar v’hinei shlosha anashim — And he [Abraham] lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold three men stood by him”; it continues, “And he saw them, and he ran (vayaratz) to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground” (Genesis 18:2).

These opening verses are often cited as a central example of the virtue of hospitality. The active verbs provide a reminder that being welcoming is not a passive, receptive experience but rather a course of action, as we read how Abraham then spoke to the strangers, offered them food and water and a place to rest, and then rushed to prepare the food, enlisting his wife Sarah in the endeavor.

In addition to the act itself of being welcoming, is Abraham’s willingness to run towards something unknown in order to perform an act of kindness. He does not know who these strangers are, yet his impulse is to go and greet them; as it turns out they are angels sent from God, who tell him that in a year’s time his aged wife will give birth to a son.

Looking ahead biblically, the term vayaratz shows up again when Abraham’s son Isaac is grown. Abraham sends his servant to find a suitable wife for Isaac: “And the servant ran (vayaratz ha’eved) to meet her, and said let me drink a little water from your jar” (Gen 24:17). He does not yet know who she is, but he runs towards her, and discovers soon after that she is indeed the one intended for Isaac. In verse 20, it is Rebecca who runs (vataratz) “and she ran back to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels”, thereby sealing her fate as the sought-after mate for Isaac. The servant and then Rebecca might have walked, ambled, strolled; but no, they both ran.

In the next generation, we encounter the “run” verb when we read about how the long-estranged brothers Jacob and Esau, sons of Isaac, are reunited. “Esau ran (vayaratz) to meet him and embraced him” (Gen 33:4). In that moment, Esau does not know how his brother, the one who had deceived and tricked him years earlier, will respond. But he runs towards him nonetheless. It is also interesting to note that just before the encounter, the words used to describe Jacob seeing Esau for the first time are the same as those which describe Abraham seeing the messengers: Vayisa (Yaacov) einav vayar v’hinei (Esav ba) — “And (Jacob) lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, (Esau came)” (Genesis 33:1).

A most dramatic image in our recent history is that of the fire fighters and emergency workers on the morning of September 11, 2001 who ran towards danger in order to try and save lives. For most of us however, the choice to run towards meeting the needs of others is not so dire, or so obvious. But their actions set an example for us, as do the actions of our ancestors.

The biblical texts do not tell us what impelled Abraham (or the servant, Rebecca or Esau) to run.  The line from the Bruce Springsteen song quoted above may give us a clue: perhaps we are all “born to run”, seeking to escape from a mundane existence in search of something better.  “Tramps” that we are — flawed individuals every one of us, like our ancestors — perhaps we nonetheless have the impulse within us to run towards a better future for ourselves and for others, if we are willing to take the chance.


Cantor Sandy Horowitz is the cantor of Adas Emuno in Leonia, NJ.