God And Angels Visit Abraham
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Shabbat Vayera

God And Angels Visit Abraham

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light.”

Candlelighting, Readings:

Candlelighting: 5:31 p.m.

Torah: Gen. 18:1-22:24

Hafatarah: II Kings 4:1-37

Havdalah: 6:31 p.m.

Our rabbis tell us that as a reward for Abraham’s submitting to the painful procedure of circumcision, God paid him a personal visit, appearing to him at the oaks of Mamre.

Ramban says this revelation came as a mark of distinction and honor, not for any underlying purpose such as charging him with future instructions or briefing him about his wife’s pregnancy. “Rather it came as pure reward for the commandment which had already been performed and as an assurance of God’s approval (for his way of life).”

Almost immediately, however, this revelation spins away from its source, devolving from the heights of mystical abstraction and multiplying itself into the appearance of three dusty travelers pursuing their way toward Abraham. What happened?

Abraham’s nature intervened, interfering with the Divine transmission. As was his custom, he was sitting at the door of his tent, on the lookout for passersby. Considering Abraham’s physical condition, and to create conditions for greater privacy between them, God brought out a sweltering sun to ward off strangers and afford the patient time to heal. Yet even during this encounter with the Highest, Abraham yearned for guests. The needs of other humans took precedence over his own comfort. Regarding this preference, our rabbis have stated: “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” [Shabbat 127a].

God accommodated His friend’s proactive nature, producing angels in the guise of guests to afford him further opportunities to do good. Prophecy will have to come instead through these human apparitions and the kindnesses their appearance elicits.

Rashi emphasizes the ethical and practical consequences of the visit: it was the third and most painful day after the procedure and God was discharging the mitzvah of visiting the sick. This may have been to internalize this act of kindness in Abraham’s descendants, making the nature of God and the Covenant they were entering more humanly accessible for future generations.

We are told that God, or His Shechinah, is a consuming fire, but we are also told to get as close to Him as possible, to “cleave to the Lord your God.” The Talmud [Sotah 14] asks, “How can one attach oneself to fire which consumes?” What it means is to follow in His ways. “Just as He clothes the naked, as He did with Adam, so do you; just as He visits the sick as He did with Abraham, so do you.” Or, to paraphrase: “Just as He is merciful and compassionate, be merciful and compassionate, too.”

In “Guide to the Perplexed,” Maimonides explains that the portion begins with a general statement — “And the Eternal appeared to Abraham” — with particulars of this manifestation added only afterward, through a partially distorted vision of three angels in human form.

Ramban takes issue with Maimonides’ explanation, calling it heresy, as it consigns whole swathes of events, actions and conversations in the Torah to the scrap heap.

Maimonides seems to say that, with the exception of Moses, God communicates with all other prophets only through their imagination. Hence, the whole account of Abraham’s reception of guests and the conversation that ensued never took place anywhere but in Abraham’s mind.

According to Maimonides, says Ramban, all is illusion, and “Sarah did not knead cakes, Abraham did not prepare a bullock, and Sarah did not laugh.” Maimonides’ philosophical tendency, he implies, is to abstract the substance and reality from the Torah.

The one point where Ramban agrees is that wherever the Torah mentions a protagonist’s capacity to hear or see angels, it must be in a visionary setting, because human senses cannot apprehend the supernatural. However, where angels appear in human form, as is the case here, they may be perceived without a visionary context.

At what point does Abraham realize his guests are angels? The Zohar says that Abraham became aware of his guests’ identity only when the chief among them reminded him of the one person he always took for granted: “Where is Sarah, your wife?”

Doesn’t God know where she is? Of course He does. But He wants to offer Abraham a chance to articulate what really matters. Where does the Shechinah dwell that is the true focus of all his actions?

“At first he took them for men,” says the Zohar, “but afterward he became aware that they were holy angels who had been sent specially to him. This was when they asked him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?’ And they said to him: on the word elav (to him) there are dots above the letters, spelling out the word ayo (where?) This is a reference to the Holy One who is above.”

This elav, however, links to the one found at the beginning of the parsha and possibly picks up from that peak manifestation which is now being resumed. Abraham has come full circle, this time not simply to the entrance of the tent, looking out, but to the innermost part of it.

As to the angel’s query of Sarah’s whereabouts, the Zohar explains: “The masculine word thus formed, ayo, is followed by the word ayeh (where?), a feminine version of the same, to emphasize the bond between them. Where is that bond complete? In the tent. There it is found, in the all-in-all union, where the Divine had been leading him all along. 

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “The Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” (Jason Aronson).

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