Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Ayeh? (Vayera 5775)

A thought:

Three passersby are welcomed to the tent of Avraham and Sarah, presented with water for their feet, and shown to a shady place beneath a tree. Bread and water are promised, and a much broader repast is laid before them. The appreciative wayfarers dine, and then turn to Avraham with a question: Ayeh? Where is Sarah, your wife? (Bereishit 18:9)

What is their purpose in asking Ayeh? It is not a request to meet the chef; Avraham and Yishmael also prepared the food. Further, they did not actually ask to meet her. And third, the question is unnecessary; as seen in the next biblical chapter, these are angelic beings! Why do they need to ask after Sarah's whereabouts? [Perhaps malachim are not omniscient, but given our first two points, they seem to be seeking something other than Sarah's GPS coordinates.]

Generations of commentators have perceived different messages within the visitors' question; see Bava Metzia 87a, Avot d'Rabbi Natan II 37, and Rashbam here for a range of approaches. However, we might gain additional insight by noting that our Torah portion includes two more Ayeh questions:
  • After their conversation with Avraham, the visitors journey to the city of Sdom, where they find hospitality in the home of Sarah's brother Lot. The residents of the city are hostile to guests, and wish to harm them. They crowd around Lot's house, and demand, Ayeh! "Where are the men? Take them out, and we will 'know' them!" (Bereishit 19:5)
  • The end of our portion finds Avraham and Yitzchak en route to bring an offering to G-d. After three days, they come to a mountain, and Avraham dismisses their two escorts. Avraham loads his son with the firewood, takes up the fire and knife in his own hands, and sets course up the slope. At this late stage, Yitzchak turns to his father with the question, "Here is the fire, here is the wood, but Ayeh, where is the lamb?" (Bereishit 22:7)

We may suggest that in all three of these cases, the query of Ayeh is not merely a request for information. Indeed, both the malachim and the people of Sdom know exactly where their subject is! But in all three instances, asking "Ayeh" is really asking, "Is this being playing its role?" Ayeh is a summons: the time has come, destiny is here, take your place and perform your role! [Indeed, the same may be said for many of the appearances of the Ayeh question in Tanach, and perhaps for all of them.]

  • Climbing Mount Moriah, Yitzchak turns to his father to declare, "It is time for the lamb to play its destined role, as a gift for G-d," and indeed, Avraham responds knowingly, "G-d knows where the lamb is – my son." [See Rashi to Bereishit 22:8.]
  • The villianous people of Sdom attack the home of Lot and demand, "It is time for these guests to play their destined role," to suffer abuse at our hands!
  • And the malachim similarly address Avraham regarding Sarah. "Until now, Sarah has been the faithful follower of your prophecy, travelling from Aram to Shechem to Egypt to Elonei Mamrei. Until now, Sarah has enabled your survival and success. Sarah gave you Hagar, and even insisted you take her as a full wife. But Ayeh! Where is Sarah, the woman you wedded? What she has done to this point is not the sum of her existence, this is not the person she is meant to become. It is time for Sarah to take on a new role." And so Sarah becomes the matriarch who determines the future of the Jewish people, and even the world. [This may also be linked to the change in Sarah's name; see Rashi to Bereishit 17:15.]

The Ayeh summons is not only a biblical call; ayeh is a summons for every human being, in every age. In the absence of visiting malachim, though, we are left to put the question to ourselves: where are we? And like the malachim, we know the literal answer, but the deeper question remains: where are we meant to be? Has our time come, is our destiny at hand, are we fulfilling the role for which we were created, and for which we are uniquely suited? May we not only ask the Ayeh question, but through our lives may we provide its answer.


  1. R' Menachem Leibtag points out that there are two different ways to ask "where"? Ayeh and Aifo. Aifo is asking for location. Ayeh is asking "why isn't the subject here in front of me/us". This gives a whole new meaning to questions of ayeh by Adam after the cheit and explains why the midrash feels so compelled to give the rationale for why Sarah is in the tent(among many other issues it solves). Brad