Every year, I am exhilarated by the stories of the Patriarchs, our Avot. Sometimes the soaring bravery of these remarkable individuals to confront and challenge the ancient world with the radical ideas of ethical monotheism. However, almost as often it’s the little details of these stories and of their lives which truly impress me, and, I hope, influence me. This year it’s one of those ‘little details’, which are really very big, which has me thinking.
At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, we have the quiet rendezvous between God and Avraham Avinu. It begins very simply, without pomp and circumstance: And God appeared to him in the Plains (perhaps ‘trees) of Mamre, while he was sitting at the opening of his tent at the heat of the day (Breishit 18:1). Many of us are familiar with Rashi’s comment on this scene: to pay a visit to the sick (BIKKUR CHOLIM, based on Baba Metzia 86b). This is such a sweet moment before the heavy action and tension about to break upon our beloved ancestor.
I’ve often pondered the gentle loveliness of this interlude. But there are comments by two Rabbinic giants which add so much texture and meaning to this pleasing picture.
The Kli Yakar (Reb Shlomo Ephraim Luntshitz, 1550-1619) comments about the fact that our verse, beginning a new chapter and used by our Sages to begin a new Torah reading, is remarkable for not mentioning Avraham’s name. Why this anonymity for the object of God’s revelation? So, our great commentary begins by informing us that Avraham’s name and his true personality were actually two very different realities.
The name Avraham connotes ‘authority and rule’. He is to be the Patriarch and hegemon of ‘a multitude of nations (HAMON GOYIM)’. On the other hand, Avraham’s true essence is that of one who is ‘more humble than anyone’. We know this because in just a few verses, he will state, ‘Behold I am nothing but dust and ash’ (verse 27). The Kli Yakar wants us to understand ‘that God doesn’t just appear to the mighty because of their might’. Instead, we’re discovering that God is revealed to him because of his humility and SHIFLUT (lowliness or self-effacement). That’s a wonderful reason for Divine attention and revelation.
The Ohr HaChayim (Reb Chaim ibn Attar, 1696-1743), usually referred to as HaKadosh, comments on the exact same verse, but approaches it from a different angle. He wants to know why the word order of the verse should translate: To him God appeared. This is highly unusual, because in most statements the subject of the verb appears before its object, as happened in all previous Divine appearances.
The great rabbi then rejects the famous comment of Rashi (and the Midrash) that this was a visit to the ill, because no mention of the visit’s purpose is stated. And, according to the Ohr HaChayim that’s the whole point. We have no stated purpose for this Divine appearance, because: the message to Avraham was that henceforth God’s presence would rest upon him on a permanent basis. Avraham was to become ‘a vehicle (MERKAVA, not the tank!) for the Divine Presence (SHECHINA).
This exalted status would eventually be granted to all of the Patriarchs. From now on God no longer ‘appears’ to Avraham, we just have the content of the statement. God doesn’t have to appear, because the Shechina is permanently present.
Rav Attar goes on to explain that this new status could only be achieved after BRIT MILAH. His visions from now on would be of a higher caliber of prophecy, clearer and better understood because he was, ‘able to absorb a vision of God in its superior light’.
And as they say on game shows: but that’s not all! Another reason why Avraham, who is the object of the vision, and not God the Projector of the vision comes first in the verse is that, ‘God appeared to Avraham for Avraham’s sake’. The Midrash is clear that the appearance or visit took place on the third day after the BRIT MILAH, because that’s the most dangerous time, health wise. We discover this fact from the story of Shimon and Levi when they attacked Shechem.
But that’s not the point. The real take away from this wonderful statement is that the appearance of God does not establish a responsibility or an obligation. It’s a gift!
It’s so easy to look at Divine visits or statements in the format of the recipient being an impersonal vehicle for God’s will and plan. But that’s not the way of looking at it at all. The Ohr HaChayim is clearly explaining that God appears to Avraham, the Avot and all the other Prophets, because the purpose is for the benefit of the recipient. Yes, history often looks like a complicated (perhaps multi-dimensional) chess game and we usually feel like expendable pawns on the vast board. We should never feel that way.
Our two great commentaries are explicating the intricacies of the text, but much more importantly they are describing the blossoming relationship between God and Avraham, our Zeydie. We must work hard to feel like worthy heirs to this boon.