This week’s parsha is chalk-full of troubling stories, from the Akieda, arguably the most challenging section of the Torah, to the destruction of Sdom and Amorah, to the episode of Lot and his daughters. What caught my attention while reading the parsha, though, was a subtler play on language related to rhetorical questions. There are a few examples in this parsha of questions asked where it is almost certain that the questioner knows the answer. First, the three angels ask Avraham where his wife Sarah is (18:9), even though, since they were sent by Hashem to tell Sarah a prophecy, the odds are that they know she is in the tent. The Rashbam immediately draws the parallel to the most famous rhetorical question in the Torah, Hashem’s famous Ayeka (3:9), when He asks Adam and Chava where they are hiding in Gan Eden. The Rashbam concludes that this is just a common way of beginning a conversation. I think there might be more to it, though. With that connection in place, the question becomes: did Sarah do something wrong by not greeting her guests with Avraham that can in any way be compared to what Adam and Chava had done to lead to Hashem’s anger at them (eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil)?
There is support for the theory that rhetorical questions precede anger or violence twice later in our parsha (which the Rashbam does not quote). First, Hashem says that he must ‘go down’ to Sdom and Amorah to investigate whether “these [people] have done destruction or not; I will know” (18:21). Hashem clearly knows that Sdom and Amorah have “done destruction” and that He will soon destroy the cities. Why phrase it as a question?
Third, when Lot takes in the same three angels when they come to warn him of the impending danger in Sdom, the mob that gathers outside of Lot’s house, where the angels are being hidden, asks “where are those men that came to you this night, release them to us and we will know them” (19:5). Once again, the mob almost surely knows that the angels are inside (even if they do not know they are angels), as they know all the details of their arrival. In all of these three cases, the other two in Vayeira and the famous one in Bereishit, the rhetorical question is followed by negative emotion, if not violence and “destruction.” What is the connection, and what does it say about the angels opening question about Sarah?
I think that the midrashic explanation of the opening verses of our parsha will help explain why Sarah may not have lived up to the expectations her husband, and potentially Hashem, placed on her in this case. Our parsha begins with Avraham being visited by Hashem as he sits outside the tent in the heat of the day (18:1). The gemara (Sotah 14a, Bava Metzia 86b) says that Avraham was sitting outside to heal from his circumcision, and the sun was out because Hashem wanted to allow him to heal in peace. However, once Hashem saw that Avraham was saddened by the lack of guests, he sent angels to visit him so that Avraham could fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests). However, if this is the case, Avraham quickly leaves Hashem, even as Hashem is visiting him in his weakended state, in order to see to his guests. Maybe Sarah should have been more observant of the approaching guests, and welcomed them in herself so that Avraham did not have to do so at the cost of leaving Hashem’s presence.
Why ask the question
Knowing the answer full well
Did I do something?