Vayera: The Man With Enough Light ~ Reuven Chaim Klein
The Hebrew word for a blind person is iver. Cognates of that word appear in such Biblical quotations as “Do not put a stumbling block in front of a blind person” (Leviticus 19:14) and “…bribery blinds the eyes of wise men” (Deuteronomy 16:19). However, the Talmud and Targumim use two Aramaic words to refer to a blind man — suma and sagi-nahor. What are the deeper meanings of all these words, and in what ways do they differ from each other?
Rabbi Shlomo Pappenheim of Breslau (1740-1814) writes that the word iver is related to the orthographically identical word for “skin” — ohr (both are spelled AYIN-VAV-REISH). He explains that blindness is related to skin because the most common cause of blindness is a cataract, which is essentially a skin-like membrane which develops over one’s eyes. Because this is the most common form of blindness, any blind person is known in Hebrew as an iver, and the illness is called ivaron.
Based on this, Rabbi Pappenheim explains that when the Bible warns that “bribery blinds the eyes of wise men” this does not mean that it takes away their intellectual faculties completely. Rather, it is similar to that which plagues the typical blind person. His eyes themselves function just fine, but the cataract over his eyes impedes his ability to see clearly. Similarly, when a judge accepts a little “sweetener,” this does not completely take away his ability to properly judge court cases. Rather, the bribe becomes like a cataract that blinds his ability to see the truth in this case.
The Talmud (Bava Batra 16a) says that the Satan, the Evil Inclination, and Angel of Death are all one. According to the Zohar, the name of this angel is Samael. The root of this name is the same as the root for the word suma — which implies that this angel is blind. However, the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 20b) seemingly contradicts this by asserting that the Angel of Death is full of eyes. If he is blind, then why does he have multiple eyes?
Rabbi Mordechai HaKohen of Safed (1523-1598) answers that, on its own, Samael is really blind (as his name suggests), and he has no eyes. However, whenever a person sins and rationalizes his transgression by saying “there is no Eye that sees me do this”, then he is effectively giving an extra eye to the Evil Inclination, so that by the time he confronts the Angel of Death before he dies, the angel sports a multitude of eyes.
The word sagi-nahor is actually a portmanteau of the two words: sagi (“enough”) and nahor (“light”). It refers to one who is blind by way of a rhetorical device known as antiphrasis, whereby one says the exact opposite of what he means. According to this understanding, sagi-nahor refers euphemistically (or sarcastically) to the unseeing. However, the Kli Yakar (Num. 24:4) writes that while a blind person’s visual faculties are non-existent, his other senses are sharpened, so he is considered enlightened enough through those senses that he can appropriately be called a sagi-nahor. This goes to show how G-d provides everyone with exactly what they need, and even if the visually impaired lack the ability to see, they still have “enough” light.
Besides ivaron/averet, there is another word for “blindness” in Biblical Hebrew: sanverim. When the residents of Sodom mobbed Lot in order to ravage his guests, the Bible reports that they were miraculously stricken with sanverim (Gen. 19:11). This word appears only twice more in the Bible (II Kings 6:18). Throughout the ages, a wide range of scholars have attempted to trace the exact meaning of sanverim, and how it differs from ivaron:
Rashbam (to Gen. 19:11) writes that sanverim is a combination of blindness/confusion.
Malbim (to Gen. 19:11) writes that sanverim refers to some form of distorted vision, but not actual blindness.
Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) suggests that sanverim is a contraction of the phrase soneh ohr (“he who hates light”), and refers to some sort of over-sensitivity to light (photophobia). He explains that although the term primarily refers to somebody who simply cannot tolerate light, it was borrowed to mean “blindness”.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800-1880) writes that sanverim is a contraction of sneh (a type of thorn) and ohr, and refers to a blind person, as if his eye was poked with a thorn.
Rabbi Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna (1821-1893) explains that sanverim refers to a malformed type of vision whereby one sees multiple instances of everything. It’s like seeing double, but even more than double! The medical term for this is polyplopia. This affliction effectively rendered the men at Lot’s house blind because they could not translate what they saw into reality.
The Sochatchover Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Borenstein (1855-1926), explains that sanverim refers to a confusion of the heart’s emotions, whereby one can physically see something, but remains unable to process that sight on an emotional level.
Academic conspiracy theorist Dr. Immanuel Vilkovsky (1895-1979) writes that sanverim is different from ivaron because sanverim specifically denotes a form of blindness inflicted upon somebody through hypnosis.
Dr. Fred Rosner writes in Medicine in the Bible and the Talmud that sanverim and averet both refer to amaurosis — that is, blindness without any visible organic change, caused by disease of the optic nerve.
Evyatar Cohen suggests that sanverim is related to the word snir (“snow” — see Rashi to Deut. 3:9), because the light of the sun reflected from snow can blind people. This is why it is always recommended to wear sunglasses when walking in the snow during the day.
Rabbi Lt. Col. Yehoshua Steinberg connects the word sanverim to tzinur (“pipe”), because an eye which cannot function resembles a hollow pipe.
Chaim Tawil, in his lexicon of Akkadian, argues that the Hebrew word sanverim is borrowed from a similar Akkadian word which means “radiant light”. Apparently, that light was understood to be so strong that it blinds those exposed to it. Alternatively, he cites other linguists who say that sanverim is related to the Akkadian word for “night-blindness”.
Vayeira: Political Capital Wasted on Sodom? ~ Yehoshua Steinberg
What if the fifty righteous people should lack five? Would You destroy (הֲתַשְׁחִית) the entire city because of the five? (Gen.18: 28)
There are eight occurrences of the root ‘שחת’in the Torah portion Va’eira,exceeding its incidence in any other Torah portion. However, it is worth noting that the description of Sodom’s destruction also includes four other expressions denoting destruction: 1) “לכלות”(termination) – (18:21); 2) “לספות”(stamp out) – (18:23-4; 19:15, 17); 3) “להמית”(kill) – (18:25); 4) “להפוך” (overturn) – (19:21, 25, 29). Thus, we must try to distinguish between these terms, and understand the message that each of them teaches us. Lastly, how do these words relate to the question of questions – why did Abraham seek to rescue the evil inhabitants of Sodom?
We find the root ‘שחת’ in connection with the sin of the Golden Calf: Go, descend – for your people (שִׁחֵת) have become corrupt(Ex.32:7). Our Sages interpreted the wordשִׁחֵתin the sense of קִלְקוּל(deterioration/ spoilage),1and in the sense of חֲבָּלָה(damage / corruption).2Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, commenting on the phraseוַתִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ,and the earth had become corrupt (Gen. 6:11),points out that קִלְקוּלis an expression of incomplete destruction. The term “השחתה” takes on this meaning because it is derived from the root ‘שחת’ that means a pit/trap.3Rabbi Hirsch makes a similar linkage regarding the phrase,פֶּן תַּשְׁחִתוּן, lest you act corruptly (Deut. 4:16), noting that the root ‘שחת’in that verse denotes a spiritual/ moral deterioration, for like the descent of the pit, one who falls off of the proper moral path sinks into spiritual decline.
We also find the destructiveחֲבָּלָה)) aspect of the root ‘שחת’in describing the blemish of an animal offering, in the verse (Lev.22:25) for their corruption (מָשְׁחָתָם) is in them, a blemish is in them.4[As explained by Ibn Ezra,its root is ‘שחת’, as the letter ‘מ’is superfluous.] Ramban explains this linkage in his comments to the verse, Their blemish has corrupted his non-children for him(Deut. 32:5): “A blemish is referred to as a “corruption,”5as it is stated, for their corruption is in them, a blemish is in them…[Thus, our verse] is saying that the blemish of Israel has corrupted for the Rock (i.e., G-d) His nation and His heritage.
To summarize, our early commentators use several concepts in an effort to clarify the meaning of the word “השחתה”. They are: 1) spoilage/ blemish; 2) damage/ break; 3) decline/ descent. We should also note that we find similar meanings in other roots containing the letters ‘חת’. They are:1.שחת 2.פחת 3.תחת 4.חתם 5.חתה 6.נחת 7.חתן 8.חתת 9.חתך 10.חתר 11.חתף 12.חתל:
1) Root שחת: This term has three meanings in this regard: a) pit/trap (a sunken / low location)6; b) distorted/degenerate /ugly (a decrepit / declining state)7; c) spoilage(physical or spiritual).8
2) Root פחת: This term has two meanings in this regard: a) pit/ trap(a sunken / low location)9; b) defect /baseness(feeble / lowly quality).10
3) Root תחת: This term has three meanings in the above context, all of which are directly linked to its literal meaning, “below/beneath”: a) lowliness11;b) instead of /in exchange for12(as if the potential replacement is sitting beneaththe original, ready to replace it at the appropriate time. In this sense, it is similar to the English word “lieu-tenant,” a subsidiary officer who is on call to serve “in lieu of” his boss); c) because/due to(the primary motive, which lies just beneaththe surface).13
4) Root חתם(sign/ seal): A seal is sunken into the wax / lime. Also, when part of a signet ring, it serves to leave an indelible and irreversible impression.14
5) Root חתה(rain down): This is how Yer. Shlomointerprets the term in the verse, for you will(חֹתֶה)rain down coals on his head (Prov. 25:22). Likewise, Midrash Sechel Tov,on the verse, Now Hashem had caused sulfur and fire to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen.19:24), states: “When [G-d’s] children were hungry, he rained down bread from the heavens, and when the Sodomites revolted [against Him], He rained down ((חתהcoals.”
7) Root חתן(son-in-law)16: Yeriot Shlomo (Vol. I: 112, 2) links the terms “נחת”and “חתן”as both are based on the two-letter root ‘חת’in his view. Thus, the term נַחַת רוּחַdenotescalmsatisfaction, as the person arrives at a state of peace and settling down. Likewise, a son-in-law is one who “acquires an encampmentin the family and settlesinto it.” In this manner, it is similar to the word שִׁידוּך, the betrothalof two people, which is the Aramaic translation of “שכך”(immersion) and “שקט”(calm).17
8) Root חתת(shattering: a) physically18or b) emotionally.19
9) Root חתך(breakingan item via knife or sword).20
11) Root חתף(seize/capture): The verbs “חתף”and “חטף”have the same meaning, as noted by IbnEzra to Prov. 23:28.22In his comments to both Job 9:12 and Ex. 7:27, Ibn Ezra seems to equate the verbs “חתף”and”שחת”ascapturing in a trap.23Thus, it would appear that he understood “חטף”to mean specifically seizure via trap,where the seizureis a prelude to destruction. Indeed, we find similarly that Rashi and Ibn Ezra interpret the verse (Lam. 4:20)נִלְכַּד בִּשְׁחִיתוֹתָםascaptured in the pits that they dug.24
12) Root חתל(repair a rupture /breakage)25: However, as we find in a number of other roots whose opposite meanings have the same root (e.g., ‘שרש’, ‘דשן’, etc.), so too with the root ‘חתל’: a broken bone that is boundwith a bandage is concomitantly separatedfrom other objects [just as the banks (“גדות”) of the river are so called both because they simultaneously hold the river waters together while dividing it from the surrounding land (“גודו אילנא”)].
Having discussed at length the various meanings of the root “שחת”and the underlying biliteral ‘חת’, let us return to the question we raised at the outset regarding the numerous instances of this root in connection with the destruction of Sodom, and the distinction between this word and the various other terms of destruction that appear less frequently in the context of this story. After all, it would appear at first glance that all of Abraham’s great efforts to prevent the destruction of Sodom were for naught, for in the end it was utterly destroyed. However, if we analyze more deeply the use of these alternate expressions in Abraham’s “bargaining” with G-d, a very different picture is revealed to us.
We have seen that G-d began to inform Abraham about the imminent overturning of Sodom with the word כָּלָה, a word that denotes the utter elimination of everything contained in the city. This is evident both from Onkelos26and Rashi,27as well as from Onkelos’ interpretation of other instances of the root ‘כלה’in Scripture.28However, in his response (vv. 23-24), Abraham chose an alternative expression of destruction, תִּסְפֶּה. Although Onkelos translates it here as “תשיצי”, which is the same “utterly destructive” expression that he uses in the aforementioned instances of “כלה”,we find other instances of the term in this very portion which Onkelos translates as “תלקי”, an expression of lashingrather than destruction.29As he continues to plead on behalf of Sodom, Abraham alters his expression yet again, stating, It would be sacrilege to You to do such a thing, לְהָמִיתthe righteous along with the wicked (18:25). While Onkelos translates this too as “לשיצאה”, throughout Scripture he translates לְהָמִיתas”קטלא”,30which simply means killing.Finally, in his closing argument (v. 18:28), he alters his expression yet again, this time using the word הֲתַשְׁחִית. As we have shown above, the root ‘שחת’is interpreted by the early commentators as an expression of spoilageandsinking,and it is translated regularly in Aramaic as “חבל”, an expression of breakage,orshattering(see Targum Yonatanto Isaiah 10:27).
Abraham was not naive. It certainly dawned upon him from the very beginning that there might not exist even a single righteous person in Sodom outside of Lot and his family. However, G-d provided him with an opening by stating that He wished to destroy(לְכַלוֹת) the city. Abraham thus responded in a similar but not identical manner, using instead the root ‘ספה’, which can imply a mere lashing (הַלְקָאָה) rather than utter destruction, as above. Since G-d, as it were, was silent and did not respond, Abraham continued by mentioning the wordלְהָמִית- a word that relates to individual people, but not to the city as a whole, in the hope that G-d would allow certain individuals to survive. Once again, G-d did not protest. So Abraham concluded his plea by using the word “שחת”, a word that does not even denote destruction and elimination at all, but rather spoilage/defect, sinking, andbreakage-situations that can be overcome in principle- as long as the location is not obliterated in its entirety.
Looking at it from this perspective, Abraham did indeed succeed in his mission. For from the time he began his supplications, the word “כלה”was no longer mentioned. Although the angels did use the word “תספה”, Onkelos merely translates it as the far milder “תלקי”, and perhaps they merely used the word in the context of warning Lot about the imminent doom, so that he would hasten his departure. In any case, the word “כלה”wasno longer being used. The destruction of Sodom was now merely being described via the words “השחתה”and “הפיכה”,overturning. Targum Yonatan (to Amos 4:11) describes the “מהפכת סדום”asthe distancing of the Divine Presence,31and we also find the term”הפיכה”interpreted in the sense of withdrawal /setback (see Targum Yonatan and Metz. David to Jud. 20:39).32In any case, the site was not wiped off the map forever, and some remnant thereof was allowed to remain. This could seemingly be accredited to Abraham and his tireless pleas.
Finally, we also asked above: What was Abraham’s motive in pleading for the rescue of the evil Sodom? Perhaps our Sages provided us with clues to the answer in the Midrashic citations referred to above in reference to the verse, Go, descend – for your people (שִׁחֵת)have become corrupt (Ex.32:7). Exodus Rabba (42:1) states: “[The term] שִׁחֵתcan only mean that they corrupted their deeds.” Tanchuma (Ki Tisa, 20) states: [The term] שִׁחֵתcan only mean the spoiling of deeds.” Hence, we see that the sin of the Golden Calf – the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish people – is nonetheless described “merely” by the term “השחתה”, which denotes spoilageand corruption. Is this possible? However, the survival of the Jewish people in this incident may also stem from the merit of our Forefather Abraham, who foresaw the future of his own people in his relentless pleas on behalf of the evil Sodomites. In other words, whatever transgression Israel might commit in the future would surely not rise to the level of the evils of Sodom. Hence, if even Sodom itself was not completely wiped off the face of the earth, and it was “merely” נשחתה, it goes without saying that certainly the Jewish people deserve to survive forever. G-d’s description of even the cataclysmic sin of the Golden Calf as שחתtherefore serves to reaffirm Israel’s destiny to survive in perpetuity – and the Eternal One of Israel does not lie!
1תנחומא כי תשא פ’ כ– אמר למשה: לֶךְ רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ (שמ’לב:ז),אין שחת אלא קלקולמעשים, שנאמר:שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם (דב’לב:ה).
2שמות רבה מב:א– אמר למשה: לֶךְ רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ (שמ’לב:ז),ואין שחת אלא שחבלומעשיהם, כד”א:שִׁחֵת לוֹ לֹא בָּנָיו מוּמָם (דב’לב:ה).
4ת”א– חבולהון בהון מומא בהון. וכן תרגומו של שרש ‘שחת’בכל מקום, כגון:בר’ט:יא– וְלֹא יִהְיֶה עוֹד מַבּוּל לְשַׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ;ת”א– ולא יהי עוד טופנא לחבלא ארעא.”חבלה”מתורגמתכשבירה:ישע’י:כז– יָסוּר סֻבֳּלוֹ מֵעַל שִׁכְמֶךָ…וְחֻבַּל עֹל מִפְּנֵי שָׁמֶן;ת”י– תֶּעְדֵי…נִירֵיהּ מֵעַל צַוְרָךְ וְיִתְּבְרוּן עַמְמַיָא מִן קֳדָם מְשִׁיחָא.
5אמנם נציין דרך אגב שמצינו גם מום “חיובי“,שכן בגמרא מוזכר “מום יפה” (מגזרת‘מאום‘):נדר‘סו:– קונם שאי את נהנית לי עד שתראי מום יפה שביך;תוס‘– מום יפה –כלומר יפה מאום שום דבר יפה,כמו:וּבְכַפַּי דָּבַק מאוּם (איוב לא:ז).
22משלי כג:כח– אַף הִיא כְּחֶתֶף תֶּאֱרֹב;אב“עמכת”י(תורת חיים)- אף היא -הזונה כפי שתוכל לחטף האנשים,היא תארוב לזנות עמהן.
23איוב ט:יב– הֵן יַחְתֹּף מִי יְשִׁיבֶנּוּ;אב”ע– הן יחתוף -ישחית כמו:כְּחֶתֶף תֶּאֱרֹב (משלי כג:כח).שמ’ז:כז-אָנֹכִי נֹגֵף…בַּצְפַרְדְּעִים;אב”ע– נגף כמו משחית,וכן כתיב:וּצְפַרְדֵּעַ וַתַּשְׁחִיתֵם (תה’עח:מה)…אמרו שהוא מין דג…ויוצא מן הנהר וחוטף בני אדם.אמנם,חז”ל דרשו את הפסוק בתהלים בצורה אחרת.ראה שמ”ר בא טו:כז;שם וארא א:י.
And Avraham arose early in the morning to the place where he stood there before Hashem.1
In the sequence of creation, וַיְהִי עֶרֶב וַיְהִי בֹקֶר, morning follows evening, day follows night. Initially, there was darkness before Hashem created the light.
So too in life we begin in darkness. We are in the clutches of theyetzer hara. Life seemingly has no meaning. We don’t see the bigger picture. We live in our own confused little worlds. Only when we get older, when our minds begin to develop and expand with our Torah learning, do we become better equipped to fight off the shackles of the yetzer hara. Slowly the light of the Torah infuses us, the darkness begins to fade, the dawn breaks, and now we are able to see how everything in life has purpose, how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together.הַבֹּקֶר אוֹר/all becomes clear in the morning light.2
The Gemara in Brachossays that it was Avraham who instituted the morning prayers, as it says: וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר /Avraham arose early in the morning, אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר עָמַד שָׁם אֶת פְּנֵי ה’ /to the place where he stood there before Hashem.3עָמַדis a reference to Amidah, where we stand in front of Hashem in prayer.
לְבַקֵר: To Examine
In the morning light, we are able to examine what is true and what is false. We have come out of not just darkness but erev/evening, which is a mixture of light and darkness, a state of murkiness, a state of confusion, where we cannot distinguish clearly. The Torah shines light on our erevand we have morning.4
It was the morning when Avraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent. Through examining the marvels of Hashem’s creation, the sun and its movements, Avraham was able to come to recognize his Creator. For this reason the resha’imwho don’t use the morning to examine their ways are judged in the morning, as we see that it was when the sun came out that Hashem destroyed Sodom.5
The first time we see בָּקָרin the Torah referring to cattle is when Avraham is visited by the three angels. Avraham runs to the בָּקָר. Ramban uses the play on words רָץ אֶל מַקוֹם הַבָּקָר לְבַקֵר/runs to the place of the בָּקָר/cattle to לְבַקֵר/examine andchoose the most fitting one, using the lashonof examining. There is also a place in the Beis HaMikdash called the Lishkas HaKorban, which is where the animal offerings were examined four days before they were offered up to Hashem, checked for any blemishes that would disqualify the offering.
Soבָּקָרis a representation of examining, to be fitting to pass the test, so that when we give, we give the best. We are told the offerings are in place of ourselves, so we must also examine ourselves and be free of blemish.
יָדַע שׁוֹר קוֹנֵהוּ/the ox knows its owner6—theבָּקָר/bakaris so named because come the morning, it is able to recognize its owner. The ox and the donkey recognize their master, the one who feeds it, yet man doesn’t recognize Hashem.7
וְאֶל הַבָּקָר רָץ אַבְרָהָם/Avraham ran to the bakar.8The bakar, who has da’as/knowledge to recognize Hashem, leads Avraham to the מְעָרָה/the Cave of Machpelah, revealing the burial place of Adam and Chava at the entrance to Gan Eden.9
And Hashem appeared in the plains of Mamre, and he (Avraham) was sitting at the entrance to his tent like the heat of the day.10
Three days after Avraham’s bris milah, at the most painful time, Hashem appears to him, the first act ofbikur cholimin the Torah. Avraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent looking for an opportunity to do the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim/welcoming guests.
It was in fact בֹּקֶר/morning, but Hashem made it like the heat of the day so that no one would be out (because only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!) so as not to trouble Avraham in his time of sickness.
When we visit the sick, we are מְבַקְרִין/examining the needs of the sick person, and at the same time we are examining ourselves. Just like it is good to go to the house of mourning in that it turns our hearts to what is important in life, so too by visiting the sick we come to examine our ways.11
עֶרֶב/evening— is the period when light is mixed in with the darkness.
בֹּקֶר/morning — is where everything is crystal clear.
We have to examine ourselves to know whether our thoughts and hashkafasare clear or mixed up. It is hard to distinguish between the twilight of עֶרֶבand the dim light of early בֹּקֶר, however one leads to darkness/obscurity and the other to crystal-clear light/clarity.
How do we examine ourselves? Not through our own analysis, because we have personal biases. We can only measure ourselves by someone who is outside of us — the tzaddik/rabbi and a friend/chavrusa.
As we have seen, Avraham is very much connected to the boker. The bokeris a time of chesedand emunah, traits that are clearly reflected in Avraham. After the evening Shemawe say emes ve’emunah — we have emunahthat when we go to bed at night and entrust our souls to Hashem, in His great chesedHe will return our souls to us in the morning. As we say: לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְֽדֶּךָ/to tell of Hashem’s kindness in the morning.12In Eichahwe say: חֲדָשִׁים לַבְּקָרִים רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ/anew in the mornings, great is Your emunah.13This is reflected in the words of מוֹדֶה אַנִי/modeh ani, where we thank Hashem for our renewed souls, and we say רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ/great is your emunah, because just like we have emunahin Hashem that He will return to us our souls, so too Hashem hasemunahin us that at the end of the day we will return our souls to Him anew, different from how we were in the morning, having grown inavodas Hashemthroughout the day.
So this is the meaning of בֹּקֶר/morning. A time to say modeh aniand thank Hashem for His kindness and emunah, a time to reflect in prayer, a time to לְבַקֵר/examine and see clearly who runs the world, a time to be like theבָּקָר/cattleand recognize our master, a time to do בִּיקוּר חוֹלִם on ourselves and examine our ways.