How To Deal With Your Existential Void



Among the Rebbe’s analysis of Rashi's commentaries on this week's reading, Vayera [1], we will explore a phenomenon not very common in the text of the Torah: letters that have a little dot of ink over them.

These dots do not serve the function of vowels —since vowels do not appear in the text of the Torah— but serve to modify the meaning of the text, adding meaning to it and/or weakening its literal meaning.

Although Rashi is not obligated to explain its meaning every time it appears in the Torah, he does so when explaining the purpose of its appearance will help to clarify a difficulty in the understanding of the text. 

In this week's reading we read about three angels disguised as Arabs who came to visit Abraham. After describing how he hosted them, the verse says [2] that "they said to him, 'Where is your wife Sarah?' And he said, 'She is in the tent'." The text continues with one of the angels informing Avraham that Sarah will give birth to a son and Sarah's reaction upon hearing the news.

Rashi quotes the words "ויאמרו אליו, Vayomru eilav (they told him)" and comments: "It is dotted on the letters אי "ו (Aleph, Yud, Vav) of the word אליו Eilav (to him). It is taught in the Talmud that Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: every time a word contains more letters without dots than with dots, you must explain the letters without the dots. And in this case the letters with a dot are more than those without a dot, so you have to explain the letters that do have a dot. [It means that] Sarah was also asked 'where is Avraham?'. We learn from this that a guest must inquire of his hosts, the man regarding the welfare of his wife and the woman regarding her husband. In the treatise of Bava Metzia it is said that the angels knew where our matriarch Sarah was, it [the reason they asked where she was] was in order to publicize the fact that she was modest, in order to endear her to her husband. Said Rabbi Yossi bar Chanina: [It was] in order to send her a cup of [wine of] blessing.

There are quite a few questions here that need to be addressed:

  1. If Rashi's objective is to explain the word אליו (eilav, "to him", why does he also quote the word ויאמרו (vayomru, "they said")?

  2. What is added to our understanding of the text itself by knowing that the author of the rule regarding the relationship between letters with a dot and letters without a dot is Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar?

  3. What is the meaning of this rule? If we always have to explain the majority letters —whether they have dots or not— why would we have to dot most of the letters; would it not be enough to always dot the minority and as a consequence thereof we would be forced to explain the majority letters which are the ones without dots?

  4. Why does Rashi explain the reason for the question regarding the location of Sarah as part of the dotted word quoted, if it has nothing to do with it, but with the following words in the text ("Where is your wife Sarah?") ?

  5. Rashi brings three explanations as to why they asked where Sarah was. Why wouldn't one explanation be enough?

  6. Why do we need to look for explanations when we already know that they came with the mission of informing about the birth of Yitzhak and the most logical thing was to ask where Sarah was in order to inform her? 

  7. The three reasons Rashi brings are three very different reasons; why does Rashi list them in a sequence as if they were all related?

The explanation:

The word in the text that needs explanation is: ויאמרו "they said", in plural. Since only one of the angels came with the mission of informing Avraham and Sarah of the imminent birth of their son Yitzhak, it should have said ויאמר, "he said". To explain this anomaly, Rashi says that the three asked asked about Sarah not in order to inform her of the imminent birth of Yitzhak, but because a guest must inquire of his hosts about the welfare of their spouse. 

Now, if the rule is that a guest must ask the man regarding his wife's welfare and the woman about her husband's, why don't we find any mention in the text that Sarah was also asked about Avraham's welfare? Rashi therefore explains that this is why there are three dots above the letters איו; the three letters marked with the dots form a word that means "where is he?". The implication is that in addition to the explicit question in the text —where is your wife, Sarah?— Sarah was also asked about the welfare of Avraham.

From the fact that the exchange with Sarah is not explicit in the text, but implied by the dotted letters, we understand that the question to Sarah was not asked with the same force as the question to Avraham. What is the reason for this difference? It is to answer that question that Rashi quotes from the treatise Bava Metzia that Sarah was a very modest woman and it would therefore not be appropriate for the conversation with her to be documented in such an explicit and public way.

But the matter is still not entirely clear. Granted that one should ask the host about his spouse, why, however, did they ask Avraham where Sarah was and not how she was, especially given the fact that they were angels who surely knew where she was?

That is why Rashi brings the two explanations: 1) in order to endear her to Avraham by leading him to answer the question, thus emphasizing her quality of modesty; 2) to send her wine from the cup of blessing.

Why does Rashi bring the three answers together, if there is no intrinsic relationship between them? The answer is that since the verse says "they said", that the three "guests" asked ‘where is your wife, Sarah?’ it is understood that each one of them asked the question with a different intention, since as a rule the mission of an angel is unique and specific. With the explanation cited by Rashi it is understood why the same question asked by each of the three was not identical to that of the other two.

As for the question concerning the rule of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, why would one have to dot most of the letters in a word if according to the rule is that one needs to explain the majority of the letters in a word (with or without dots) it would always be enough to dot the minority, and thus the majority would remain without dotting and would therefore be interpreted?

Dots serve to weaken the letters marked by them, so it makes a difference if most of the letters are with or without a dot. In our case, the dotted letters that form the word "Where is he?", in addition to implying that Sarah was also asked about Avraham, also imply that the question to her was not as obvious as the explicit question to Avraham; it was "weaker". This gives rise to another question, then: according to this, it turns out that the three dotted letters are merely auxiliary to the fourth letter of the original word. Is it logical to say that three letters are there to supplement only one?

It is in answer to this question that Rashi brings the name of the author of the rule, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar. According to Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar if one wants to bake a loaf of bread on Yom Tov, it is permitted to fill the entire oven with bread, even if one does not plan to eat them all on Yom Tov, because filling the oven with more bread will result in the bread being better baked. In other words, we see here a halachic example as to how many can be considered to be auxiliaries of one. This answers the question regarding the relationship between the majority and minority letters of a word.    

The Chassidic perspective:

When one makes an inventory of the time he or she dedicates to study Torah and fulfill mitzvot and the time dedicated to mundane matters, work, eat, sleep, etc., and realizes the balance of time with spiritual content and time without it, one can become demotivated by the great emptiness in one's life. 

The empowering lesson that we can extract from this commentary by Rashi is: the reason that one can fill the space in the oven with "mundane" bread, even though on Yom Tov one can only cook food destined to be consumed on Yom Tov, is because by helping the bread that one wants to consume on Yom Tov to be better cooked, it ceases to be merely "mundane" bread. 

Similarly, when it comes to the mundane tasks that occupy such a large part of our daily lives, it doesn't matter so much how much time one spends on something but rather what his intention is. If one performs "mundane" tasks with the aim of allowing for a more optimal Torah study and Mitzvot fulfillment, they cease to be "mundane". Furthermore, by executing the mundane activities according to G-d’s will, one fulfills the objective of the Master Plan for Creation: to transform every aspect of it into a "dwelling place" for G-d; every aspect of existence —even the most "mundane"— can play a part in this objective and thus express its divine essence, origin and purpose.

(The development of the theme in the original text is much more complete. I share here nothing more than a compact version.) 

Based on Likutei Sijot Vol. 15, pp. 110-117