Avraham's Prophetic Stature in Parashat Vayera
The Lekh-Lekha/Vayera Unit
The two parshiyot of Lekh-Lekha and Vayera tell the story of Avraham Avinu. While the Torah introduces us to this patriarch in the final verses of Parashat Noach (11:26-32), he appears there only as part of his father's family. At the other end, we read a bit more about Avraham in next week's reading, Parashat Chayei Sara, but there all his activity involves bringing his life to a close: the burial of his wife and the search for a suitable partner for his son, Yitzchak. The two parshiyot in between, Lekh-Lekha and Vayera, present the life's work of Avraham Avinu, from God's initial revelation to him, where he was ordered to relocate in Canaan (12:1), until the greatest of his many trials - the binding of Yitzchak (chapter 22). (For all intents and purposes, the concluding verses of Parashat Vayera, which tell of the birth of Rivka, "belong" in Parashat Chayei Sara, which describes Rivka's marriage to Yitzchak.) That these two parshiyot form an independent unit is further corroborated by the fact that Parashat Lekh-Lekha begins with God's first revelation to Avraham, while the binding of Yitzchak marks his final recorded prophecy. Furthermore, God's final promises in each of these revelations parallel one another: "and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (12:3); "All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command" (22:18). This two-parasha unit, then, is the account of God's prophetic communication with Avraham.
As we study Parashat Vayera, we will focus on the similarities and differences between events recorded in this parasha and their parallels in Parashat Lekh-Lekha. As we will see, this single unit itself divides into two, reflecting two stages of Avraham's prophetic relationship with God.
Angels on Earth, or Man in the Heavens?
Our parasha opens with a seemingly purposeless divine revelation to Avraham (18:1): "God appeared to him in Elonei Mamre, as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot." The Torah does not record any words spoken to Avraham at this point, unlike his several previous prophecies in Parashat Lekh-Lekha. Instead, the story continues with the arrival of the three mysterious guests who inform Avraham and Sara of her imminent conception of a son. Rashi cites Chazal's explanation that God appeared to Avraham for purposes of "bikkur cholim," visiting the ill, as Avraham still suffered discomfort from his circumcision. Alternatively, we may arrive at a different understanding by suggesting a different punctuation of the verse. If we place a colon at the end of this verse - "God appeared to him in Elonei Mamre (as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot): - it will then turn out that this revelation consisted of the appearance of the three strangers, or angels. God revealed Himself to Avraham by dispatching three divine agents to speak with him.
Should we accept this second interpretation, we must address an important question: does this method of revelation mark a lowering of Avraham's prophetic stature? Why does God suddenly deem him undeserving of direct revelation?
We should perhaps add that this issue may itself stand at the heart of the difference between these two approaches. If God appeared to Avraham merely to "visit" him, then our parasha opens with a dramatic enhancement of the Almighty's relationship with him. Whereas until now God appeared to Avraham only to convey to him specific instructions or promises, now He visits him as a friend, to offer comfort and support. In fact, some recent commentators have suggested that according to the "peshat" - the straightforward reading of the text, God appeared here to Avraham for no purpose other than communion between man and God. Undoubtedly, this would point to a qualitatively new stature, whereby Avraham earns the experience of God's presence without any "pretense," purely for the sake of being together. (Compare with Chazal's understanding of the Shemini Atzeret festival - Rashi, Bemidbar 29:36).
Seemingly, then, herein lies the critical point of distinction between the two approaches to our verse. If God appeared to Avraham directly, then Avraham's prophetic stature has taken on a new dimension - the experience of revelation even without a specific imperative or conveying of information. Alternatively, if God "appeared" to Avraham through the agency of the ministering angels, then Avraham seems to have lost privileges to direct revelation. Why should that be?
In a VBM shiur several years ago, Rav Ezra Bick explained that the arrival of angels in fact signifies a promotion of stature. Chazal note that in its presentation of the angels' visit to Avraham, the Torah consistently refers to them as "anashim" - "men." By contrast, as they proceed to their next mission (to destroy Sedom and save Lot - chapter 19), they suddenly earn the title, "malakhim" - angels. To Avraham, the appearance of angels was perfectly ordinary and routine, no different from the visitation of people. In Lot's home in Sedom, the arrival of divine agents marked an aberration from the norm, a most unusual occurrence; to him, they were angels.
Thus, the arrival of angels in Avraham's tent, such that he interacts with them in a casual, informal manner as he would with other people, points to his "membership" in the heavenly community, if you will. After performing the circumcision at the end of the previous parasha (chapter 17), by which he physically binds himself into a covenant with God, Avraham transcends ordinary, earthly existence. When the angels come to Avraham, they do not descend from the heavens; they are "men," of equal stature to their host. Only in Sedom do they appear as "angels," as divine beings temporarily transplanted in an earthly environment.
Regardless of our approach to this opening verse, then, Avraham's prophecy has risen to new heights. Whether God appeared to him for a "friendly visit" or if He dispatched angels to speak to him, these opening verses reflect a transition from the revelations of Parashat Lekh-Lekha. The Almighty and His angels no longer come to earth to speak to Avraham; rather, Avraham now stands in the heavens, interacting with them as if with other human beings.
"Standing Before God"
Beyond the different modes of revelation, we may detect another, corresponding transition from last week's parasha to ours: Avraham's mode of communication with God. Just as God reveals Himself to Avraham in a different manner than He did in Parashat Lekh-Lekha, so does Avraham's mode of speech with the Almighty differ qualitatively, undergoing an almost startling shift. Most notably, as Rav Bick observes in the aforementioned shiur, God's "consultation" with Avraham before destroying Sedom (18:17-21), and Avraham's almost brazen opposition to God's decision (18:23-32), point to his heightened stature. Only a mortal that has reached angelic stature can engage in disputation with the Almighty. We should perhaps consider as well the term, "va-yigash" describing Avraham's "approaching" God during this encounter (18:23). This word brings to mind the parasha bearing this term as its title, Parashat Vayigash. There "va-yigash" describes Yehuda's plea with the Egyptian viceroy to release his younger brother, Binyamin. Avraham here negotiates with God much the way Yehuda attempts to bargain with a government official, rather than as a human being speaks to the Almighty.
We may add that the Torah describes Avraham in this scene as "standing before God" (18:22), a term not used in reference to any of God's appearances in Parashat Lekh-Lekha. Likewise, on the morning following the destruction of Sedom, Avraham "arose early, to the place where he had stood before God" (19:27). Chazal (Berakhot 26b) extrapolate from this verse the requirement of the morning "shacharit" prayer service. Avraham becomes the first to institute obligatory prayer. Prayer means the active attempt to "stand before God" rather than waiting for Him to come to earth. Avraham's communion represents the prototype of prayer, as he had achieved the prophetic stature of "standing before God" in the most literal sense of the term possible.
Avraham Versus Sedom
Both Parshiyot Lekh-Lekha and Vayera devote a considerable amount of space to the experiences of Lot, Avraham's nephew, in his new home, the city of Sedom. Last week, we read of the city's defeat at the hand of the five eastern kingdoms. Avraham hears of his nephew's capture and mobilizes an army to retrieve the captives and spoils of Sedom. In our parasha, Sedom is destroyed by God, while Lot and his family are spared in Avraham's merit, rather than through his intervention (see 19:29).
In Parashat Lekh-Lekha, although Sedom's inhabitants are described as "very wicked sinners against God" (13:13), Avraham can still engage with them, come to their assistance, and even celebrate victory with their king (14:17). Now, these two conflicting entities, Avraham and Sedom, cannot coexist. Before consulting with Avraham, God declares, "For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of God by doing what is just and right… " The very next chapter graphically reveals the cruelty and barbarism of Sedom, as its residents seek to kill Lot's guests and Lot himself for protecting them. Avraham's warm greeting to the angels at the parasha's outset contrasts sharply with the hostility exhibited by the inhabitants of Sedom. While in Parashat Lekh-Lekha this contrast can somehow be practically overcome by common interests, in Parashat Vayera, Sedom must be annihilated. The Shem Mi-Shemuel (Rabbi Shemuel Borenstein, late 18th century) writes that after Avraham's circumcision, his land can no longer contain the corruption of Sedom. As Avraham now walks among angels, his country becomes sacred land, incapable of hosting a population of sinners.
The Exclusive Family
What's true about Avraham's country applies with even greater intensity in his own household. Parshiyot Lekh-Lekha and Vayera contain similar accounts of Hagar, Sara's maidservant who then became Avraham's concubine. Both times she leaves her mistress's house and receives a comforting and encouraging visit from God's angel. One significant difference, however, sets the two incidents fundamentally apart. Last week, after Hagar had fled from Sara's mistreatment of her, the angel urged her to return to her former mistress's home, where she will bear Avraham a son. In our parasha, however, God Himself orders the expulsion of Hagar and Yishmael from Avraham's household. The contrast between the two parshiyot becomes even starker in light of other references to Yishmael in Parashat Lekh-Lekha. In chapter 17, Avraham asks that Yishmael succeed him (17:18). Although God rejects this idea, promising instead an heir born to Sara (17:19), the request itself reflects Yishmael's standing in Avraham's home. Additionally, this chapter closes with Avraham's circumcision of himself and his household, making specific mention of Yishmael. In Parashat Vayera, Yishmael loses the stature he had as Avraham's son and is banished into the wilderness. Consider as well that even before his banishment, at the very beginning of our parasha, Yishmael is referred to anonymously as "ha-na'ar" - the lad (18:7, following Rashi's interpretation). Chazal likewise identify one of the two unnamed "lads" accompanying Avraham on his way to bind Yitzchak as Yishmael (Rashi, 22:3). This perhaps points to Yishmael's having lost his stature of Parashat Lekh-Lekha.
In Parashat Vayera, Avraham's family becomes more exclusive; the standards of "membership" become stricter. Whereas Parashat Lekh-Lekha can include a "wild man, with his hand against everyone and everyone's hand against him" (16:12) in Avraham's family unit, Parashat Vayera introduces a far more rigid acceptance policy. After Avraham's circumcision, he and Sara form a "royal" family unit which can include only those born from them henceforth: "for it is through Yitzchak that offspring shall be continued for you."
This would perhaps explain the relevance of the account of Lot sleeping with his daughters (19:30-38). Avraham builds his family and future through miracles and as a result of a unique, divine blessing: "God took note ['pakad'] of Sara as He had promised, and God did for Sara as He had spoken. Sara conceived and bore a son to Avraham in his old age, at the set time of which God has spoken" (21:1-2). These verses stress the prophetic quality of Sara's conception and birth, their having occurred in precise accordance with God's promise. Lot, meanwhile, becomes inebriated and impregnates his daughters. God had saved Lot from Sedom in Avraham's merit, and the angel instructed him to flee "to the mountains" (19:17). As the Jordan River Valley was destroyed, Lot was to run westward, towards the Judean hills where Avraham lived. In other words, the angel ordered Lot to disassociate himself from the lifestyle of Sedom and join his uncle's following. Instead, Lot moves to the hills and starts a new family of his own by sleeping with his daughters. Significantly, we never hear of Lot again; the last relative of Avraham that held out hope of joining the exclusive family is permanently excluded.
Avraham and Noach
Two weeks ago, in our shiur on Parashat Noach, we noted the distinction drawn by the Midrash between Noach and Avraham. While the Torah says about Noach that he "walked with God" (6:9), God bid Avraham, "walk before Me" (17:1). The Midrash writes that God charged Avraham with the responsibility of "leading the way," while Noach clung tightly to God much as a child nervously grasps his parent's hand as they walk together. As we explained, Avraham marched proudly and confidently as the standard-bearer of monotheism. Several times in Parashat Lekh-Lekha we find Avraham "calling out in the Name of God," which many commentaries interpret as preaching. Noach, by contrast, lived in isolated piety, unable or unwilling to confront the opposing ideological forces of his time.
In this regard, we may observe a distinction of sorts between Parshiyot Lekh-Lekha and Vayera. As we have seen, Avraham's prophetic stature reaches new heights in Parashat Vayera, resulting in a growing incompatibility between him and his pagan surroundings. Expectedly, then, in this parasha we do not find the frequent "calling out in the Name of God." Only once does Avraham engage in this "calling," after his covenant with Avimelekh, the king of Gerar, in Be'er Sheva (21:33). Moreover, he plants there an "eishel," which, though difficult to define, is understood by the sages as a means of large-scale proselytizing (see Rashi, ibid.). It is critical, however, to note the circumstances which brought about this situation: "At that time Avimelekh and Phikhol, chief of his troops, said to Avraham: God is with you in everything that you do. Therefore swear to me here by God that you will not deal falsely with me… " (21:22-23). While in Parashat Lekh-Lekha Avraham initiates his engagement with the local population, here the government takes note of his God-given success and seeks a mutually beneficial relationship with him. Gerar evolved from a city regarding which Avraham observed, "there is no fear of God in this place" (20:11) to the point where its leader acknowledges that "God is with you in everything that you do." Only then do they consult with Avraham for guidance and inspiration.
Berit Mila: The Transition
How and why did this transition in Avraham's prophetic stature occur? In our search for a possible answer, let us take a closer look at the point of this transition: berit mila (the covenant of circumcision), the final section of Parashat Lekh-Lekha.
Circumcision, the physical expression of Avraham's covenant with God, binds the individual to a relationship with the Almighty that necessarily precludes the possibility of conflicting allegiances. In Parashat Lekh-Lekha, Avraham's military allies, Aner, Eshkol and Mamrei, are described as "ba'alei berit Avraham" - literally, "those who have come in a covenant with Avraham." After establishing a "berit" with God, Avraham can longer be a "ba'al berit" - covenantal ally - with anyone else. He may conduct political treaties, as he does with Avimelekh (21:27), but existentially, he is bound to God alone. Just as a lover wears on his or her body or clothing a symbol of commitment to the beloved, so does Avraham now eternally bind himself into a relationship with God. His interaction with the Almighty now takes on a qualitatively new dimension.
Necessarily, this singular commitment requires a distance between Avraham and those representing conflicting ideologies. God perhaps alludes to this conflict of interests in His introduction to the mitzva of berit mila: "Walk before Me and be perfect" (17:1). Avraham must face the challenge of walking "before God," conveying His universal message of ethical monotheism to the world, while remaining "tamim," perfect. Moshe uses this term, "tamim," when urging Benei Yisrael to resist the prevalent tendency towards sorcery and witchcraft (Devarim 18:13), and Noach is described as possessing this very quality (6:9). "Tamim" perhaps connotes resolute resistance to external ideological influences, the dominant characteristic of Noach and the great challenge faced by the Israelites upon their arrival in Canaan. As God brings Avraham Avinu into the exclusive, covenantal relationship of berit mila, he charges him with this challenge: to represent Him to his contemporaries while retaining the standard of "perfection" expected of the Almighty's covenantal partner.
The final chapter of Parashat Lekh-Lekha, Avraham's circumcision, marks an important transition in his prophetic stature. Having inextricably bound himself in a covenant with God, Avraham now enjoys the "casual company" of angels and even the Almighty Himself, as he can now "stand before God." This new stature results in a natural expansion of the rift between him and his pagan contemporaries, requiring the destruction of the corrupt city of Sedom and stricter standards of inclusion in Avraham's family cell. The patriarch's proselytizing efforts are also affected, as his deepened relationship with God limits his engagement in the surrounding communities. Only after the local inhabitants recognize from afar Avraham's Godliness, can they come to him for guidance.
In Bereishit 14:13, the Torah refers to Avraham as "Avraham Ha-ivri," or Avraham the Hebrew. Rashi understands the term "ivri" as a geographical description: Avraham came from "eiver la-nahar" - across the river. Chazal, however, interpret the word as descriptive of Avraham's status vis-à-vis society: "The entire world is on one side ['me-eiver echad'] and he is on the other side." This title thus points to Avraham's singularity and individuality as he lives amidst a polytheistic society. Interestingly enough, the Torah invokes this appellation specifically as Avraham intervenes and wages the decisive battle in a major regional war. This interplay between "peshat" (the simple meaning) and "derash" (homiletic interpretation) accurately reflects the delicate balance Avraham had to maintain. Avraham - and his progeny - must intervene and interact, bringing the divine message to all mankind, while at the same time nurturing their own unique relationship with God.