Vayera: Planting and Building
Towards the end of the parasha of Vayera, just prior to the drama of the akeida, Avraham settles in Beer Sheva.
וַיִּטַּע אֶשֶׁל בִּבְאֵר שָׁבַע וַיִּקְרָא שָׁם בְּשֵׁם ה׳ אֵ-ל עוֹלָם. (בראשית כא:לג)
Avraham planted an אֶשֶׁל in Beersheba, and called there on the name of Hashem, “God for eternity” (or “God of the universe”). (Bereishit 21:33)
The word אֶשֶׁל does not appear elsewhere in the Chumash, and only in two other places in Tanach (Shmuel I 22:6 and Shmuel I 31:13) and its meaning is unclear. The structure of the verse raises another question - what connects Avraham’s planting of the אֶשֶׁל with his calling on the name of Hashem?
The “pashtanim” (commentators that general offer the simplest meaning of the text) adopt the most obvious interpretation. Since the text describes the אֶשֶׁל as an object of planting, it is a tree (Ibn Ezra) or an orchard (Rashbam). Rashbam adds that this was a place designed for Avraham to pray in, thereby linking the two parts of the verse.
Rav Soloveitchik (20th century, America) sees the tree as not just functional, but educational.
The Torah relates this detail because Avraham taught the world that through the tree one could perceive the Master of the universe. God Himself controls the flowering and growth of the tree, the falling and withering of its leaves in autumn, the budding and growth of more leaves in the spring. Organic life is revealed through the tree, and thereby God is perceived as well. Avraham’s greatness is that through the world, through nature, he could discern what others could not. … Avraham planted the אֶשֶׁל tree, and from beneath the tree he was able, as the verse says, to proclaim the Name of God; the God not merely of the tree alone, not merely of man’s immediate surroundings, but of the vast universe. Man’s purpose in general and the Jew’s purpose in particular is to see the God of the universe through the leaves of the אֶשֶׁל. (Derashot HaRav, pp 111-114)
Rashi (11th century France), as is his custom, is not satisfied with the simplest meaning of the text. Based on the Talmud (Sotah 10a) and the Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 54:6) he offers two interpretations:
אשל - רב ושמואל חד אמר פרדס להביא ממנו פירות לאורחים בסעודה. וחד אמר פונדק לאכסניא ובו כל מיני פירות. ומצינו לשון נטיעה באהלים שנאמר (דניאל יא) ויטע אהלי אפדנו:
אשל – (Two opinions are offered by) Rav and Samuel. One said it was an orchard from which to supply fruit for the guests at their meal. The other said it was an inn for lodging in which were all kinds of fruit (Sotah 10a). And we find the expression of “planting” used of tents, as it is said, (Daniel 11:45) "And he shall plant the tents of his palace".
In his comments on the Talmud (Sotah 10a) Rashi adds that אשל is an acronym of אכילה (eating),שתיה (drinking) and לויה (escorting) which are the essential acts of hospitality.
(The Maskil L’David explains that Rashi regards “orchard” as the literal translation of אשל, and “inn” as the Midrashic interpretation, inferred from this acronym).
We can be sure that Rashi would not waste his time or ours with just amusing wordplay, and that there is a deeper meaning to these initials. Indeed it is stated in the name of the Vilna Gaon that the אכילה (eating), שתיה (drinking) and לויה (escorting) offered by Avraham corrected the sins of Adam (eating), Naoch (drinking) and the people of Sodom (failure to escort guests).
Continuing the alphabetical analysis, Rabbeinu Bachya observes that the letters of אשל are the same of שאל - to ask - because Avraham instructed his guests to ask for whatever they wanted.
Rashi goes on to explain that he hospitality offered at the orchard/ inn led to the calling on Hashem’s name:
ויקרא שם וגו' - על ידי אותו אשל נקרא שמו של הקב"ה אלוה לכל העולם לאחר שאוכלים ושותים אמר להם ברכו למי שאכלתם משלו סבורים אתם שמשלי אכלתם משל מי שאמר והיה העולם אכלתם
'ויקרא שם וגו – Through this Eshel the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, was called "God of the entire Universe". After they had eaten and drunk he said to them, "Bless Him of whose possessions you have eaten! Do you think that you have eaten of what is mine? You have eaten of that which belongs to Him Who spake and the Universe came into existence".
The Maharal of Prague (15th century) explains that the two opinions brought by Rashi reflect two different aspects of Avraham’s achievements. He quotes the midrashic idea that the world remained in a state of תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ - formless and empty (see Bereishit 1:2) - until Avraham came and brought stability to creation. In this respect he was the “original planting” that Hashem planted in the world Therefore it is fitting that Avraham himself plant an orchard.
At the same time, Avraham was אב המון גוים - the father of many nations (Bereishit 17:5). The interpretation of אשל as “inn” therefore connects to Avraham’s mission to bring the world together by spreading the idea of monotheism, exemplified by his bringing into his tent all passers by and offering them physical and ideological sustenance. Avraham is thus the planter (orchard) and the sustainer (inn) of the world.
Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin (20th century, Israel) presents a beautiful understanding of Rashi’s two interpretations. He explains that an orchard has some advantages over an inn, and the reverse is also true.
An orchard is self-reproducing, and will provide fruit year after year. However it does not provide much physical shelter from the elements. Conversely an inn is an excellent facility from which to offer board and lodging to guests, but it is inorganic and cannot grow or replicate.
Avraham created the first synthesis of these two archetypes. He built the first Jewish home. Such a home can serve as a beacon of kindness and succour to the vulnerable and needy to whom it offers hospitality, like an inn, but by nurturing and inculcating values into children raised in that home, and ultimately into future generations, it can continue to grow, and spread its impact into the future, like an orchard.
The key event of the parasha of Vayera is the birth of Yitzhak, and the guarantee of the Jewish future. Avraham’s sensitivity and dedication to his guests (contrasted with the opposite characteristic in Sodom) both in his tent and his אשל, demonstrate to his descendants the essential qualities of the family that he will raise, and the nation that he will found. Once this future is assured, Avraham can plant his אשל, he can build his home and, for the first time, he can call on the name of Hashem as אֵ-ל עוֹלָם - “God for eternity”.