Friday, October 26, 2018

Sarah’s Whereabouts Determine Jewish Law

Parashat Vayeira begins with Avraham convalescing after his circumcision. Unexpectedly, he sees three “visitors,” whom the Midrash identifies as angels, come toward his home. Excited to welcome guests, he washes their feet, and promises them a meal. Avraham asks his wife Sarah to prepare bread, while he slaughters meat, and brings the guests a scrumptious meal. He stands over them, making sure they are eating.

Then the “guests” ask a bizarre, perhaps immodest, question. “And they said to him, where is Sarah your wife? And he said, Behold in the tent” (Genesis 18:9). After asking this question, the angels inform Avraham and Sarah that in a year hence they will be blessed with a son, despite their advanced age. The Midrash explains the need for three angels: one angel came to heal the sick Abraham, another angel came to inform Abraham and Sarah of their impending parenthood, and a third angel came to destroy the evil city of Sodom. Once the angel concluded his task of visiting Avraham, it was tasked with saving Lot and his family.

So why did the angels need to ask about Sarah’s whereabouts before dispatching their jobs?

Tradition maintains that the Jewish Messiah will be a descendant of King David. But, King David himself is a descendant of the righteous Moabite convert, Ruth. The Moabite nation was born from the union between Lot, Abraham’s nephew, and one of his daughters. The Torah (Deuteronomy 23:4-7) declares that Moabites may not be accepted as converts because they did not act hospitably toward the Israelites while they were in the Wilderness and because they hired Balaam to curse the Israelites.

If this is true, how could Ruth be accepted as a convert? How could David be a legitimate king of Israel?

The Talmud (Yevamot 77) notes that Moabite men are proscribed from joining the Jewish people, because they were the ones who decided not to provide victuals to the wandering Israelites. The rabbis in the Talmud were unsure if Moabite women could be accepted or not. After all, would the women, had they had the opportunity, have fed the Israelites? The Talmud concludes, based on a ruling of the prophet Samuel, that we do accept Moabite women as converts.

Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, the first Gerrer Rebbe known as the Chidushei HaRim, suggests that this is why the angels asked about Sarah’s whereabouts. If she were demonstrating hospitality, which she was, the law would allow the conversion of female Moabites. This debate proved relevant to the angels, as they needed to know whether Lot and his daughters should be saved in order to eventually produce Ruth and King David.


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