This week’s alumni d’var torah is by Davida Kollmar
This week’s Parshah describes the Hachnasat Orchim of Avraham, the revelation that he and Sarah will have a son, and the birth and subsequent Akeidah of Yitzchak. As many Haftarot do, this week’s Haftarah parallels the events of the Parshah. The story, told in II Melachim 4, describes how a woman from Shunam would regularly host the prophet Elisha as he would come through town, eventually giving him a room of his own in her home. In return, Elisha promised her that she would be blessed with the birth of a son, although she was hesitant to believe that she would not be disappointed. The son was born a year later, but died when he was a child. However, Elisha was able to bring him back to life.
The two stories mirror each other in many ways: the hosting of guests, informing a barren woman that she will have a child, the birth of the child, and the eventual near death of that child. What is interesting, however, is that the Isha Shunamit does not parallel Sarah in her role, although she is also a woman, but rather she parallels Avraham.
While in both stories the husband and wife team both take part in the hosting of guests, in Vayera the primary host is Avraham, who then gives Sarah instructions about what to do. On the other hand, in Melachim, it is the Isha Shunamit who takes initiative, and she instructs her husband.
Later, when they are being informed that they will have a son, Avraham and the Isha Shunamit interact with the messenger, while their spouses do not. Avraham had actually been personally told about the birth of Yitzchak a chapter earlier, in Parshat Lech Lecha. Now, it seems, the message must be intended specifically for Sarah, since Avraham has heard it already. Indeed, the angels begin by asking Avraham for Sarah’s location, as if they wish to speak to her. But instead of speaking directly to Sarah herself, the angels communicate the message to her via Avraham. This is in spite of the fact that we know from Megillah 14a that Sarah herself was a prophetess, and so presumably was capable of speaking to angels as well. While Hashem does in fact talk to Sarah in this episode, it is not to inform her of the birth of her child, but rather to rebuke her for not believing sufficiently in His abilities. It seems that for some reason, it is in fact Avraham who is the desired audience for all of these messages.
Similarly, like Avraham, the Isha Shunamit, rather than her husband, is the one who is asked about what it is she is lacking so that Elisha can pray for her, and then is told she will have a son. Even language-wise, while there are stronger parallels between the speech to the Isha Shunamit and that of Sarah, it is also similar to those of Avraham: “הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה-שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד” vs. “ וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן” vs. “וְאִישָׁהּ זָקֵן”, and “לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה, בַּשָּׁנָה הָאַחֶרֶת” vs. “ לַמּוֹעֵד אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ, כָּעֵת חַיָּה” vs. “לַמּוֹעֵד הַזֶּה כָּעֵת חַיָּה” (it is ironic that these are the only places where the phrase “כָּעֵת חַיָּה” is used, when in fact the child is sentenced to death). Additionally, while Avraham, Sarah, and the Isha Shunamit are all incredulous about the news, it is only Sarah who is faulted for it, while Avraham and the Isha Shunamit are not criticized. Of note is the fact that unlike with Sarah, who was acknowledged by the angels if not spoken to, the Isha Shunamit’s husband is not even mentioned as a possible audience in the whole section about the imminent birth of the child.
With the near death of their child, too, Avraham and the Isha Shunamit are the main players, but not their spouses. It is Avraham, not Sarah, who is commanded regarding Akeidat Yitzchak; in fact, Rashi on Bereishit 23:2 says that Sarah died when hearing about the Akeidah after it was over. The Isha Shunamit, too, keeps the news about her son dying from her husband. While their son had been with his father when his head began to hurt him, by the time he died he had been brought to his mother, and when the Isha Shunamit goes to Elisha to tell him her son died, she refuses to tell her husband what was happening.
I think the fact that the Isha Shunamit is more similar to Avraham than she is to Sarah sheds light on one of the questions I had on the Isha Shunamit story: why did the son need to die, if he was just going to come back to life anyway? I think that by having the Isha Shunamit be the parallel of Avraham, we are able to make this story be the antiparallel of the Akeidah, and so therefore try to learn from the contrasts. In the Akeidah story, there is a son, who starts out being alive. Hashem tells the father to kill him, but stops him before he does so. The father however, still wants to kill the son to fulfill Hashem’s command, so a ram is given in the son’s stead (see Rashi to Bereishit 22:12). On the other hand, in the story of the Isha Shunamit, Hashem kills the son without warning; the mother refuses to believe that her son could have died, so she goes to the prophet to bring him back to life. For Avraham, the story was a test to see if he would listen to Hashem’s command, even if it seemed harsh. For the Isha Shunamit, the lesson was the other side of the coin; it was to teach her that although it went against her instinct of not asking for things for herself (“בְּתוֹךְ עַמִּי אָנֹכִי יֹשָׁבֶת”), Hashem is a God of goodness, although sometimes miraculous things really can happen. Both of these models serve as something to think about and balance when contemplating our relationship to Hashem in our own lives.
Davida Kollmar, from Edison, NJ, is in her second year of GPATS and is an alumna of SBM 2014.