INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA
Kindness and Truth
Rabbi Alex Israel
Our parasha opens with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent. We are told that God "appeared" to
Abraham. Almost immediately, a small
group of wayfarers enter the scene and we witness an account of Avraham's
overwhelming hospitality to them.
This seemingly straightforward Bible story is not without its problems. Let us examine this famous episode
and we will see whether we can dig a little under the surface.
"The LORD appeared to him (Abraham) at the Oaks of Mamreh; he was sitting at the
entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.
Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from
the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, 'My
lords, if it please you, do not leave your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe
your feet and recline under the tree and let me fetch a morsel of bread that you
may refresh yourselves'..." (Bereishit 18 1:4).
The narrative tells us that Abraham mobilizes his entire household,
baking bread, slaughtering a calf, to provide fresh food for his chance guests. Abraham serves this sumptuous meal
The men have a message for
"One said, 'I will return to you next year and your wife Sarah shall have a
son!' Sarah was listening at the
entrance to the tent behind him. Now
Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the
periods of women. And Sarah laughed
to herself, saying, 'Now that I am withered, am I to be rejuvenated - with my
husband old?' Then the Lord said to
Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh.... Is
anything too wondrous for the Lord?
I shall return next year, and Sarah shall have a son'" (18:9-14).
The men leave, apparently bound for Sodom.
The next chapter tells of two angels arriving in Sodom to destroy the
city for its evil culture, but in advance of this, we see that:
"The men set out from there and looked down to Sodom, Abraham walking with them
to see them off. Now the Lord said,
'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?'" (18:16-17).
God then proceeds to inform Abraham of the impending destruction of
When reading the first line of this famous passage, two basic questions
confront the reader. The first
concerns Abraham's behavior, the second is a question about God.
Firstly - Abraham. It seems
as if God appears to Abraham and in the middle of it all he gets up to run after
some travelers! Is this appropriate
conduct vis a vis the Almighty? And
secondly - what was God's vision to Abraham?
What was he going to say to him before he was rudely cut off by Abraham's
enthusiasm for welcoming guests?
We may add one further question.
Who exactly are these men?
How do they know that Sarah will have a child?
According to rabbinic tradition, and this is strongly hinted in the text
itself, we might assume that two of these 'men' proceed down to Sodom. In that case, these men are not human
but rather angels. That would
explain their message to Sarah. But
we may also ask: to where did the third one go?
And why are they not called angels in the text?
THE RAMBAM - VISIONS AND
Maimonides (known as the Rambam; b. Spain 1135 - d. Egypt 1204 - one of
the primary figures of medieval halakhic and philosophical literature) is
troubled by these questions. But
furthermore, the Rambam is concerned by the nature, rather than the specific
identity, of these men. He has a
philosophical difficulty. If these
'men' are indeed angels, how can Abraham see them? Since angels are purely spiritual
beings and our eyes see only the physical reality before us, how can a human see
an angel? (Moreh Nevukhim - The
Guide to the Perplexed 2:42)
The truth is that the Rambam has this problem throughout TaNaKh (the
Bible - abbreviation for Torah - Neviim - Ketuvim) whenever a human 'meets' an
angel. Maimonides feels that this is
a metaphysical impossibility. Flesh
cannot see spirit. Or maybe let us
rephrase that. The only way that a
human being can perceive of an angel - a solely spiritual being - is through the
medium of a vision. Every meeting
between angel and human in Tanakh takes place - says the Rambam - in a prophetic
The Rambam's approach as regards the angels solves many of the problems
that we raised earlier. He reads the
entire story as happening in a vision.
Thus, the opening verse is an introduction to the entire parasha and not
part of the narrative itself. "The
LORD appeared to him (Abraham) at the Oaks of Mamreh" simply serves as the
opener and now the vision begins.
The curtain rises and we see Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent. In this reading, Abraham does not
walk out on God at all - the story simply begins from "he was sitting at the
entrance of the tent." It is one
story. And as for the content of
God's vision, we have solved that problem too ... the message of God IS the
WAS IT ALL A DREAM?
Despite this neat solution, the questions on the Rambam's view are
numerous. If it was all a vision,
then what is the message that this vision is attempting to communicate? Furthermore, how far do we stretch
this vision? According to the
Rambam, we will be forced to admit that Abraham never argued with God about
Sodom! In fact we may well ask: was
Sodom really destroyed or was the entire Sodom episode also a vision? If it is a vision, then Sodom should
still be standing after Abraham comes back into full consciousness. If that is not the case, where
exactly does the vision end?
RASHBAM - ALL IN THE LOWER
The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir - grandson of Rashi and master of the
rational-grammatical reading of the biblical text) agrees with the Rambam in
seeing the first verse as an opening line which sets the scene. However, rather than go in the
direction of the Rambam's prophetic vision, he prefers to see the entire episode
as happening here on earth, in the flesh.
He reads the first verse as:
"'The LORD appeared to him (Abraham) at the Oaks of Mamreh' - How? In what way did the Lord appear? -
'He saw three men standing near him.'"
The three men are the medium through which God appears to Abraham. They are angels but apparently they
can be seen with the naked eye (and the Rashbam does not relate directly to the
question of HOW one can see an angel).
Angels while appearing as 'men,' are also the messengers of God and His
representatives. In that capacity
they can be referred to as "the Lord."
In the eyes of the Rashbam, the parasha never loses track of these
angels; they remain in the spotlight.
Even when we see the phrase "the Lord said to Abraham," it is not God but
rather the chief angel - representative of the Almighty Himself. Even when Abraham argues and pleads
with God to save the city of Sodom from imminent annihilation (18:23-32), the
conversation is not between God and Abraham but rather between the third angel
and Abraham. The other two angels
are making their way to the city at that very moment.
According to the Rashbam, then, this is a story of Abraham and the
angels. It is rooted firmly on earth
and God does not enter the picture directly.
The Rashbam urges us not to be confused by interchanges in terminology
between the terms "men," "angels" and "the Lord."
In reality, they are all metaphors for the same group of God's messengers
- the angels.
PROBLEMS WITH THE RASHBAM
Clearly, the Rashbam has his weak points too. The first is exactly the point we
have just mentioned. Different names
- man, angels, the Lord - DO mean different things. Why should we equate them? Additionally, we may ask, if God
wishes to give Abraham a message, can he not talk to him directly as we see in
countless other stories?
We may also ask, what message exactly was God sending? Was it about Isaac? But Abraham has already been informed
of the birth of Isaac. In the
previous chapter - when Abraham is commanded to circumcise himself and all his
household as a covenant between him and God - he is given the following promise:
"Sarah your wife shall give birth to a son and you shall name him Yitzchak and I
will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring
to come" (17:19).
So what is it about? Sodom? Then why give Abraham the news about
Yitzchak? Is this a visit for Sarah
too? But the Torah states that God
appeared "to him." The final
question for the Rashbam is why we need to read all the many details of
Abraham's hospitality? The heading
of the parasha indicates that we are to receive a message from God. Why, then, do we need to see all the
detail of Abraham's devoted attention to his guests? It does not fit in with the title of
the whole story.
RASHI - CALL WAITING
We have seen how the Rambam perceives the entire parasha as happening in
a vision, and in contrast, how the Rashbam sees these events occurring solely
here in earth. Both of these
scholars do not want to see the narrative switch back and forth from God to man. Both commentators do not wish to read
the text as saying that Abraham lets God wait while he entertains some hungry
Rashi seems to be unworried by such concerns. His approach shows a far more complex
reading of our story. In the eyes of
Rashi, the parasha moves up and down; from heaven to earth and back to heaven,
again and again.
Let us review some of Rashi's
"THE LORD APPEARED TO HIM: God came to visit the sick. It was the third day after Abraham's
circumcision (when the wound is at its most painful) so God came to ask about
THREE MEN: One to give Sarah the news (of her child), and one to destroy Sodom
and one to heal Abraham (from his berit mila) for each angel can only perform
but a single mission....
(3) And he said 'My lord(s), if it please you, do not leave your servant" ... it
can be read as referring to God.
Abraham asked God to wait for him until he managed to rush and welcome the
Rashi has no problem with this parasha having three separate players -
Abraham, God and the angels. The
focus of the parasha oscillates between heaven and earth. Sarah laughs in disbelief at a
comment from the angels and God reprimands her.
The angels leave and God resumes his conversation with Abraham. There is a three way conversation
going on in this parasha.
Rashi seems unperturbed by the theological problems of interrupting God
to attend to the angels (although see Rashi 18:22 on the "Tikkun Soferim" -
based on the midrash). In Rashi's
reading, God too is unbothered by Abraham leaving him on "call waiting." He simply continues where he left
off, giving Abraham the weighty tidings of his plans of devastation and
destruction for Sodom and Gomorra.
Maybe Rashi is unbothered by Abraham leaving God hanging because he sees
another focus to the parasha. It
seems to me that Rashi sees this parasha as a multi-layered mosaic. It contains story within story within
story and its central theme is that of Chesed - kindness and compassion.
THE POWER OF KINDNESS
Rashi reads this opening parasha as a paradigm of hospitality, kindness
to strangers, care for the disadvantaged and weak. Abraham; recovering from an
operation; runs to draw guests into his home.
The words "run," "quick" are repeated over and over as Abraham hurries to
attend to these strangers every need.
He personally supervises the kitchens, he acts as a waiter serving their
food. He also accompanies them on
their way, not letting them leave without an escort.
The Halakha takes account of
"The reward of escorting a visitor from one's home is the greatest of all
rewards for hospitality. This is a
law set in place by our father Abraham and the charitable ways which he forged
as his lifestyle. He would give
wayfarers food and drink and would escort them on their way" (Mishneh Torah,
Hilkhot Evel 14:2).
These values are seen to override even the concerns of God Himself. The Halakha continues (based on the
gemara Shabbat 127a):
"Hospitality is of greater worth than receiving the Divine Presence itself. This we learn from Genesis 18:2: 'And
he looked up and saw three men (and ran towards them)'" (ibid.).
Rashi's reading is approved of in Jewish law! The value of hospitality overrides
the Holy presence of God. God
prefers that we attend to needy strangers than attend to Him. He will wait!
So we have established the moral message of the first story. But one question remains looming in
the background. What did God want to
tell Abraham? Why did God especially
appear to Abraham that day? What did
He want to tell him? Reading through
our parasha, we have a possible answer.
The moment the three visitors leave, God says to Abraham:
"Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do ... for I have singled him out
that he may instruct his children ... to keep the way of the Lord by doing what
is just and right ... And the Lord said 'The outrage of Sodom and Gemorra is
great, and their sin so grave'" (18:16-20).
God was about to tell Abraham how he was planning to destroy Sodom. But we are puzzled. Why does God feel a need to tell
Abraham at all? The text gives us an
explanation, namely that He knows that Abraham is a man of ethical standards. Abraham teaches his children to do
the "way of the Lord" which means acting in a manner which is "just and right." From the outside this act of
destruction looks very much the opposite of "just and right." God wants to explain his actions. God wants Abraham to understand why
God deems it "just and right" to destroy an entire city.
Abraham's reaction is laden with passion and outrage:
"... Abraham came forward and said 'Will you sweep away innocent along with the
guilty? What if there are fifty
innocent people within the city; will you then wipe out the place and not
forgive it ...? Far be it from you
to do such a thing, to bring death upon innocent as well as the guilty... Shall
the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?'" (18:23-25).
Abraham upholds the banner of
kindness and compassion. He accuses
"the Judge of all earth" with malpractice!
Abraham does not see this act as consistent with all that he knows about
God. The ensuing discussion,
however, proves to Abraham that God is in fact correct in his verdict. Sodom is evil through and through. There is not even a handful of the
righteous in Sodom.
A TRANS-PARASHA THEME
In the Torah these two stories form one long flowing narrative. There is not even a paragraph break
in the text. It is all one. One may suggest that this indicates a
common theme which runs through both stories.
The Torah here is presenting a single story about Chesed. This is a story which tells us
volumes about the depth of Abraham's moral sensitivity and passion. Abraham's hospitality and his
discussion with God about Sodom are just different facets of the same story. This story is about human compassion
and sensitivity to hardship and suffering.
We first see Abraham as a model host, welcoming any anonymous passer-by. But when we see that God has to tell
Abraham about Sodom's destruction, we realize that we are simply witnessing the
logical implication of the previous episode.
Why does God feel a need to 'clear' things with Abraham? Because Abraham is the man on earth
who epitomizes kindness to all.
Independent of who you are, you are invited into his home unquestioningly, you
are escorted back into the desert.
This story revolves around the theme of Chesed and in a certain sense, the
Rambam is correct. It is all a
The Chesed theme continues like a thread through our parasha. It seems that every story describes a
further angle on this central pillar of Abraham's moral character: Be it Sodom,
who practice the grossest lack of hospitality.
Be it the sending away of Yishmael where we share Abraham's dilemma as
whether to follow God's order and send his eldest son away from home. And then there is the Akeida, the
unfathomable of all the trials of Abraham, where Abraham is asked to obey God in
sacrificing his very own son - Yitzchak.
The trials of Abraham test Abraham's unique hallmark of lovingkindness
and they get successively more trying as they get closer and closer to home. Each new test pushes Abraham's Chesed
nearer to the limit.
What the introductory story of our parasha does, is to engrave deep into
our minds the extent to which Abraham is a man of Chesed. A soul formed in the image of
kindness, hospitality, openness, expansive generosity - and truth.