Parashat Vayera begins with the story of Avraham’s inviting three strangers – who, he did not realize until later, were angels – into his home and serving them a meal. The Torah describes how Avraham rushed to prepare a meal for them, and tells us that they ate while he “stood over them under the tree” (18:8).
Rav Yisrael of Modzitz, in Divrei Yisrael, cites Rav Yaakov Yitzchak of Peshischa (the “Yehudi Ha-kadosh”) as creatively explaining this phrase to mean that Avraham assumed the angels’ roles in the heavens. The angels came to Avraham to deliver the message that Sara would soon conceive, and this necessitated their descent into this world and acting as human beings, partaking of a lavish meal. This resulted in a “vacancy” in the heavens, as their heavenly roles went unfulfilled. Therefore, Avraham “stood over them” – he rose to the heavens to serve the angels’ roles. As they had come to earth and acted like human beings, Avraham rose to the heavens to fill the roles which the angels would normally have filled.
How might we explain this notion, of Avraham and the angels “swapping” their respective roles?
We might suggest that Rav Yaakov Yitzchak viewed the Torah’s account of the angels’ visit to Avraham’s tent as a model of the possibility of extending beyond familiar boundaries. Just as these angels were sent away from the heavens, far from their normal surroundings, to engage in our world, similarly, we human beings are capable of extending beyond our familiar “worlds” and reaching higher. Too often, we assume that we are who we are, that we are restricted to our current lifestyle, routine, habits, character and religious standards. The story of the angels who came to earth and acted like humans, in the eyes of the Rebbe of Peshischa, demonstrates that we are capable of doing the same, only in the reverse – extending beyond what we wrongly assume to be our earthly limits. Of course, we will never be capable of becoming angels, and this is something which is never expected of us, as we are called upon to serve the Almighty within the limits of human life. However, the vast majority of us are capable of achieving beyond our perceived “glass ceiling.” We have the capacity to reach higher – and considerably higher – than our current standards, than the “world” with which we have become familiar. The story of the angels thus challenges us to set our sights higher, to carefully examine what we perceive as our limits, and see which of these boundaries we are capable of breaking in the pursuit of greater achievements.