The Portion of Vayera begins after Abraham has circumcised himself and his entire family. According to our Sages in the Midrash, three days after the circumcision, when Abraham’s pain was at its peak, he sits at the doorway of his tent, scanning the horizon for potential guests. Suddenly, he has a Divine revelation [Bereishit 18:1]: “G-d appeared to [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was as its hottest.” In his explanation of the phrase “plains of Mamre”, Rashi makes an egregiously bizarre comment: “He [Mamre] was the one who advised him [Abraham] about circumcision. Therefore, He [G-d] appeared to him [Abraham] in his [Mamre’s] territory.” Excuse me? Is Rashi telling us that when Abraham received an explicit and unambiguous commandment from G-d to circumcise himself that he asked G-d for a quick recess so that he could go ask his neighbour what he thought about the whole idea? And what would Abraham have done had Mamre told him that a one-hundred year old man circumcising himself didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Would Abraham have asked G-d if He could trade in circumcision for a less invasive commandment, say, not eating cheeseburgers?
- G-d never specifies precisely which part of the body Abraham is to circumcise. All he is told is to circumcise his “orlah”, usually translated as “foreskin”. Nevertheless, the Torah [Devarim 10:16] refers to the circumcision of “the foreskin of your heart (orlat levav’chem). Maybe here, too, G-d was referring to a different kind of foreskin, one that would, hopefully, be easier to remove. Perhaps Mamre knew of such a foreskin.
- Abraham was not sure whether to make a big deal out of circumcision, to invite dignitaries and to serve chopped liver, or just to have a small ceremony with his closest friends at an undisclosed location. Mamre advised him to spend a fortune and to throw a huge bash.
- Abraham did want to be accused of acting rashly. Of course he knew that he was going to follow the Divine directive but he wanted to be sure he was following his head as well as his heart. He confides in Mamre not for advice but to catch his breath.
My Rabbi and my teacher (Mori v’rabi), Rabbi Silberman, gave me an out-of-the-box solution. Rashi uses a large number of pronouns in his explanation: “He was the one who advised him about circumcision. Therefore, He appeared to him in his territory.” We have assumed all along that it was Mamre who advised Abraham. Rabbi Silberman asserts that it was the other way around: It was Abraham who advised Mamre, one of his long-time followers, to convert to Judaism by circumcising himself along with Abraham’s family. Mamre was rewarded for joining the Jewish People by having G-d appear “in his territory”.
Let’s take a few steps backwards to try to gain some perspective. It is axiomatic that Rashi never makes a comment unless something is bothering him. What is likely bothering Rashi – the reason he needed to make a seemingly outlandish comment about Mamre – is that the Torah has already told us that Abraham lived in the plains of Mamre. After Abraham’s nephew, Lot, moves to Sodom, G-d appears to Abraham and informs him that he will one day inherit the entire Land of Israel. G-d tells him [Bereishit 13:17] “Rise, walk in the land, to its length and to its breadth, for I will give it to you.” In the very next verse, the Torah informs us [Bereishit 13:18] “[Abraham] pitched his tents, and he came, and he dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron”. Nowhere afterwards do we receive the slightest hint that Abraham has left the plain of Mamre for another location. If so, what is the Torah’s innovation when it tells us that after Abraham circumcised himself, that G-d appeared to him “in the plain of Mamre”? Rashi understands that the Torah is alluding to something and based on this allusion, he makes his comment about Abraham asking Mamre for advice.
Surprisingly, there is a third instance in the Torah in which we are told that Abraham lived in the plains of Mamre. Lot is caught in the crossfire of a war being fought in his hometown of Sodom and is taken captive. Abraham is informed of Lot’s situation and as he prepares to free his nephew from his captors, the Torah reminds us [Bereishit 14:13]: “[Abraham] was living in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, the brother of Eshkol and the brother of Aner, who were Abram’s confederates.” This only adds fuel to the fire. If the Torah has already told us twice that Abraham was living in the plains of Mamre, why does it need to remind us a third time? A comment by the Radak can help us tie things together. The Radak explains that the Torah reminds us after Abraham’s circumcision that he continued to reside in the plains of Mamre, because that is where his “confederates”, Mamre, Aner, and Eshkol, resided. The Radak concludes that a person should always live nearby his close friends, as King Solomon writes [Proverbs 27:10] “A close neighbour is better than a distant brother.”
What kind of relationship did Avraham have with Mamre, Aner, and Eshkol? The Torah describes their relationship with the words “Ba’alei brit”, translated above as “confederate”. The word “brit” means “covenant”. The three men had a covenantal relationship. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that before G-d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself, G-d had already entered into two covenants with man. The first covenant is made with Noach, the representative of the human race, in which G-d promises never again to destroy all of mankind. G-d seals this covenant with a rainbow. The second covenant is the “Covenant of the Parts (Brit bein haBetarim)”. In this covenant, G-d promises Abraham that after his descendants will be enslaved for four hundred years, they would inherit the Land of Israel. G-d seals this covenant with fire. In both of these covenants, man does not actively participate – he is the passive recipient of a Divine gift. According to Rabbi Sacks, a true covenant must be based upon “mutuality and reciprocity”. G-d created man incomplete. By circumcising himself, man would become a partner in the act of creation. When G-d tells Abraham to circumcise himself, he is challenging Abraham: “To be Jewish is also to be part of a particular covenant of reciprocity with G-d. G-d calls. We respond. G-d begins the work and calls on us to complete it. That is what the act of circumcision represents. G-d did not cause male children to be born circumcised… He deliberately left this act, this sign of the covenant, to us.” Abraham, and not G-d, seals this covenant with circumcision.
Abraham learnt the meaning of a true covenant from Mamre. Mamre was an Amorite. G-d tells Abraham at the Covenant of the Pieces that the Amorites will one day be evicted from their land and Abraham will become the owner. Nevertheless, Mamre maintains his covenantal relationship with Abraham. He goes out and fights together with Abraham to free Abraham’s nephew, endangering his own life in the process. In return for his fealty, Abraham offer Mamre physical protection and spiritual guidance. Through Mamre’s advice, Abraham learnt the value of reciprocity. Through Mamre’s advice, Abraham learnt the meaning of the true covenant of circumcision. Through Mamre’s advice, Abraham merited connecting with the Divine.
Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5784
Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Sheindel Devorah bat Rina, Hila bat Miriam, Rina bat Hassida, Pinchas David ben Gittel and Esther Sharon bat Chana Raizel.
 Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known by his acronym “Rashi”, was the most eminent of the medieval commentators. He lived in northern France in the eleventh century.
 Rabbi Yehuda Loew ben Bezalel, known by his acronym “Maharal”, lived in Prague in the 16th century.
 The “Siftei Chachamim (Lips of the Wise)” is a conglomerate of explanations on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah collated by Shabbethai ben Joseph Bass in Poland at the end of the seventeenth century.
 Rabbi David Kimhi, known by his acronym “Radak”, lived in northern France at the turn of the 13th century
 Rabbi Sacks was the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom from 1991-2013. The article can be found at https://www.rabbisacks.org/covenant-conversation/tazria/the-eighth-day/
 The subjugation of the Jewish People was a price to be paid but it was not a covenantal act.