Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Vayera 5764/ November 15, 2003

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Vayera 5764/ November 15, 2003
Looking Down At Sodom

Dr. Meir Gruzman - Talmud Department

Some biblical texts speak of people "looking down" (hishkifu in the hif'il form). What is this "looking down"? Is it merely a synonym for seeing, looking, glancing, perceiving, viewing (as pointed out in dictionaries), or might this word perhaps have a special significance?

Rabbi Alexandri commented on this word in the Midrash, saying that "in every place where the word hashkafa appears - there is a connotation of sorrow" (Tanhuma Tisa 14, Shemot Rabba 41, 1, cited in Rashi's comment on our verse). R. Alexandri does not mean that the word vayashkef appears in those places where the person looking down regrets what he is seeing yet remains passive; what he means is that the word will be used when the one looking down has an active role: i.e. he creates the sorrow, he causes the suffering and brings on the grief.

We can learn from our verse. The three angels part with Abraham, set out on their way in the direction of Sodom and look out over it (mashkifim). Perhaps the word is a hint that it is these people who will soon cause the upheaval of Sodom, create the sorrow, and bear responsibility for it? And when the Bible tells that "At the morning watch, the Lord looked down (va-yashkef) upon the Egyptian army from a pillar of fire and cloud" (Exodus 14:24) the meaning is that G-d looked down upon them to destroy them (see Rashi, s.v. va-yashkef), for immediately following it says: "and threw the Egyptian army into panic".

We find a similar use of the word in the story of the fall of Ahab's kingdom and the rise of Jehu to the throne (2 Kings 9:30ff.). When Jehu appeared in the royal court and Jezebel called to him from the window: "Is all well, Zimri, murderer of your master?" the Bible relates that: "He looked up toward the window and said, 'Who is on my side, who? And two or three eunuchs leaned out toward him (vayashkifu). "Throw her down," he said. They threw her down; and her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses and they trampled her" (2 Kings 9:32-33). Here too it is clear that those who looked down were active and created the sorrow - they killed Jezebel and supported Jehu's takeover.

We can now turn to a number of unexplained texts whose meaning was not sufficiently clear.

a. In our chapter we read that Abraham defended Sodom and interceded with G-d on the city's behalf. He claimed: "Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty...Far be it from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" And G-d answered him: "If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake" (Gen. 18:25-32). Then G-d agreed to refrain from destroying the city even for forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, and even ten but, as we know, this number was not to be found; therefore G-d overturned the city and its environs. G-d's position is totally clear and the consequences are visible to all. But what was Abraham's position following G-d's response? Was he convinced? Did he agree to this overturning and to the raining down of "sulphurous fire from the Lord out of heaven"?

It would seem that the Bible gives no evidence for this, but in light of the above, there most certainly is! For afterwards we read: "Next morning, Abraham hurried to the place where he had stood before the Lord, and, looking down (vayashkef) toward Sodom and Gomorrah and all the land of the Plain, he saw the smoke of the land rising like the smoke of a kiln (Gen.19:27-28). This word va-yashkef indicates that Abraham accepted this upheaval and even perhaps "took part" in it - if not physically, then by way of agreement and moral support, as stated by the Sforno: "And he looked down - a look of enmity for all their evil-doing".

b. In Parashat Toldot we read that when Isaac and Rebecca reached Abimelech in Gerar, Isaac said of Rebecca that she was his sister. The events that followed are described thus: "When some time had passed, Abimelech king of the Philistines, looking out (va-yashkef) of the window, saw Isaac fondling his wife Rebecca. Abimelech sent for Isaac and said, So she is your wife! Why then did you say: 'She is my sister'?" (Gen. 26:8-9).

This "looking out" by Abimelech into Yitzhak's dwelling area is not just a chance occurrence, the result of curiosity or happenstance. In light of the above text one can assume that here too, the word va-yashkef was inserted as a hint that Abimelech was following Isaac and Rebecca for the purpose of bothering and disturbing them. Perhaps the overlong stay of his guests made them a nuisance to their host and he was looking for a way to scheme against them - which he did indeed do at a later time, when he ordered Isaac to: "Go away from us, for you have become too big for us" (verse 16). And possibly he had decided to take Rebecca for himself - for he himself raised the possibility that "One of the people might have lain with your wife" -- but avoided doing so as long as he was not certain of her personal status. In any case, the use of the word va-yashkef serves to present Abimelech's intentions and wipe the mask of innocence from his face.

Rabbi Alexandri, who stated that "in every place where the word hashkafa appears - there is a connotation of sorrow", added the following: "except for the verse 'Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel' (Deut. 26:15). We are to understand that although this prayer, spoken by the person who clears out the ma'aser, includes the word hashkifa (look down), in this instance the word does not carry a negative connotation. Here it is used in a positive sense: G-d's looking down is good and brings blessing and success. And indeed, in all the biblical verses that include the word hashkafa in the context of the Lord looking down from heaven on His people Israel or part of them, the context is one of blessing or succour, and is not a mere looking or seeing. Certainly it has no connotation of sorrow.

The words "The Lord looks down (hishkif) from heaven on mankind to find a man of understanding, a man mindful of G-d" appear twice in the Psalms (14:2; 53:3). The subject of both psalms is a godless man who says in his heart "There is no G-d", and as a result "Man's deeds are corrupt and loathsome". At this same time G-d is looking down from the heavens and seeking his loyal followers, those who strive towards him. Obviously, this "looking down" does not bring with it sorrow as does the "looking down" of humans. On the contrary: It offers them caring and stretches forth a hand of friendship against the deniers and rejecters.

A similar positive interpretation should apply also to Psalm 102. In verse 20 we read: "For He looks down (mashkif) from His holy height; the Lord beholds the earth from heaven". The context is the poor man wrapped in his poverty and pouring out his heart to G-d (verse 1). The reason? "All day long my enemies revile me" (verse 9). He therefore appeals to G-d to look down from heaven, "to hear the groans of the prisoner, to release those condemned to death" (verse 21).

The Book of Lamentations provides a further example of this positive meaning - "Until the Lord looks down (yashkef) and beholds from heaven" (Lam. 2:50). Here too the context is a suffering supplicant, crying out that "all our enemies rail against us" (2:46). His hope is that G-d will look down from heaven and bring relief.

The meaning of the root shin kof pe does not change when the nif'al form is used. For instance, in Psalm 85:12 we read: "justice looks down (nishkaf) from heaven". Here also the reference is to assistance, blessing and success, as evidenced by the verse that follows: "The Lord also bestows His bounty; our land yields its produce" (verse 13).

And again, we find a similar meaning when shin kof pe appears with reference to a looking in the opposite direction, from earth to heaven, as for instance in the verse "Who is she that shines through (nishkafa) like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, radiant as the sun, awesome as bannered hosts?" (Song of Songs 6:10). If, like the sages, we interpret this Book as a description of the relationship between the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and the people of Israel, then this reflection (hishtakfut) towards heaven is positive, creating happiness, and filled with yearning and the joys of spring.

This is apparently the meaning of Rabbi Alexandri's words.