“Abraham planted a tamarisk [eshel] at Be’er Sheva and invoked the divine name there of YHVH, the everlasting God.” (Genesis 21:33) While Abraham seeks to find ways to make manifest the divine name, notice the shift that takes place here, whereby Abraham is no longer constructing altars (as he is in Genesis 12:7-8 or 13:4). Now, he is cultivating an orchard whose foundation is the “tamarisk” [eshel].
This tree has many layers as a symbol within the narrative. Early on in the rabbinic imagination, the “tamarisk” [E”SHeL] was read as something more than a pagan site of nature worship; instead, it was understood as an acronym for eating [AEkhilah], drinking [SHtiya], and accompanying [Levayah] another on the first leg of any journey. The tree then fits into the narrative of radical hospitality offered by Abraham to the three wayfarers who approach his tent. One of the three announces that Sarah will give birth to a son in exactly one year, to which she can only laugh.
Later in the narrative, as the remaining two angels arrive in the doomed city of Sodom, Abraham pleads with God to spare the city. Finally and most famously, Abraham’s faith is tested when he is commanded to sacrifice his son on Mount Moriah (the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), where Isaac is bound upon the altar. As Abraham raises his knife to slaughter his son, a heavenly voice intercedes. Therefore, in stark contrast to the hospitality shown to wayfaring strangers, here Isaac is bound and suddenly unbound only because a ram, caught in the thicket by its horns, is offered in Isaac’s stead. Never has there been so much complexity to a patriarchal figure, and this make-up runs on through the family lineage – the thread of our peoplehood.
– Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Artwork note: This week’s artwork calls to mind a grove of trees with a starry night beyond, perhaps the orchard of tamarisks cultivated by Abraham. In fact, the colors and forms are based on the microscopic cells, vessels, and pores one sees when viewing a tissue slice of Tamarix aphylla, the species of tamarisk tree likely referenced in Parashat Vayeira. Looking at such an image, we vacillate between macro and micro world interpretations; the world within is reflected in the world without, and vice versa – our living Torah. Vayeira! And He appeared! Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.