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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Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to:
Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,
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
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
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
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
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
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