Protecting the Holiness of the Sign of the Covenant
It is written, “The L-RD appeared to him in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and saw: And behold! Three men were standing over him. He perceived, so he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground” (Genesis 18:1-2).
Let us present a few questions at the outset in order to better understand these verses:
1. The Sages say, “It was the third day after Abraham’s circumcision, and G-d visited him as one visits the sick” (Sotah 14a). If Abraham was sick, from where did he find the strength to get up and run to those passing by, especially since he was in great pain?
2. It is written, “Since it is stated, ‘while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent,’ this tells us that Abraham wanted to get up, but G-d told him: Remain seated; I am standing. This will be a sign for your offspring, as it is written, ‘G-d stands in the Divine assembly’ [Psalms 82:1]” (Bereshith Rabba 48:7). The question arises: If Abraham wanted to rise out of respect for the Divine Presence (yet G-d asked him to remain sitting), what indication is there in this for Abraham’s children that G-d would be standing among them when they would be seated? Moreover, what is this sign?
3. Above all, how could Abraham leave the Divine Presence to go and run after guests passing by?
When the sacred imprint of circumcision perfected Abraham, he also became the vehicle for the Divine Presence, as the Sages themselves have said: “The Patriarchs constitute the Divine Chariot” (Bereshith Rabba 82:6). At that point he resembled G-d in all his attributes. Concerning the statement, “The L-RD appeared to him,” the Ohr HaChayim writes: “The Torah wants to show that the Divine Presence enveloped him and that he became its vehicle.” After circumcision, the yud of the sacred imprint was engraved in his flesh, concerning which the Zohar states, “The Divine Presence is with the one who is marked by the sacred imprint” (Zohar I:95a). At that moment, Abraham felt tremendous new strength, and even though he served G-d before with uncommon zeal, an impulse was now born in him that erased all physical pain. When he saw travelers standing in front of him, he dashed toward them and invited them to his home.
This teaches us that whoever undermines this sacred sign, or is not even circumcised, cannot properly serve G-d, for he has not entered into His Covenant. Yet as soon as he corrects this lack and receives the blessings during the circumcision ceremony – blessings that, as we know, refer to Abraham, G-d’s beloved, who was chosen and sanctified by Him from conception (see Tosaphot Menachot 53b) – it is self-evident that what is awakened and revealed in him, in everyone, is new strength and impetus to serve G-d (which was main thrust of Abraham’s zeal). When someone feels a lack of enthusiasm in serving G-d, it is certainly because he has undermined the sign of the covenant and must rectify it. His zeal will then be restored to him, and he will be able to serve G-d with renewed strength.
After his circumcision, Abraham was imbued with energy that he had not known up to then; he was no longer the same man. His body now functioned with extra diligence, for he dominated the 248 members and 365 tendons of his body, as the Sages have said: “At first he was called Abram, for he dominated only the 243 members of his body, and in the end he was called Abraham, as it is written: ‘And your name shall no more be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham’ [Genesis 17:5], for he dominated all 248 members of his body” (Nedarim 32b). Note that the letter hei that was added to his name has a numerical value of 5. He thus took full possession of all his strength. When his eyes saw people passing by, his legs began to run towards them with all the kindness that G-d desired.
We can now understand the sign that G-d gave to Abraham for his children when He told him: “Remain seated; I am standing. This will be a sign for your offspring.” In effect, if G-d invited him to remain seated, there had to be a reason for this. It is possible that G-d took Abraham’s acute pain caused by the circumcision into account. Yet when he saw three people standing opposite him, he had no doubt that G-d wanted him to run and welcome them, even though just before He had told him to remain seated. Through his own initiative, Abraham merited overcoming his pain and expressing his great love for G-d precisely by the fact that he didn’t remain seated, but rather hastened toward these passing guests. Since G-d was in agreement with his actions, from here we learn that “hospitality is greater than receiving the Divine Presence” (Shabbat 127a). Only a man who has attained perfection can discern that G-d’s real intention is not for him to remain seated, but rather that he should hasten to welcome those passing by.
Such was the reply that G-d gave him: “Remain seated; I am standing. This will be a sign for your offspring.” G-d indicated to him that his children would guard the sign of the covenant and reach a state of perfection, for “the deeds of the fathers are a sign for their children” (see Sotah 34a). They will seat themselves in the Presence of G-d, and they too will know when it is appropriate to get up and run and welcome guests, for they will dominate the 248 members and 365 tendons of their bodies. They inherited this from their forefather, and if they conduct themselves as he did, G-d will be present among them and they will know when it is possible and necessary to get up and help their fellow man, as did Abraham.
We now understand why the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to Abraham on the third day following his circumcision.
Concerning the statement, “The L-RD appeared to him,” we must note that in Hebrew the phrase is literally: “And appeared to him the L-RD.” With regards to this, the Ohr HaChayim writes: We must understand why the Torah changes the order of the phrase and mentions the subject (the one who sees – Abraham) before the object (the one who is seen – G-d), as well as what G-d told Abraham during this prophetic vision. The Sages teach that G-d came to visit him three days after his circumcision, as when one visits the sick (Tanhuma Vayera 2), even though the text does not indicate this. It seems that the Torah’s intent is to make us realize that G-d’s Presence was with him and that he had become its vehicle, which is why the expression “to him” precedes the mention of G-d. This is meant to indicate that the Divine Presence revealed itself to him, something that we would not have known if the grammatical order of the phrase had not been inversed. (The Aramean translations of this verse – those of Onkelos and Yonatan – render it as: “He showed Himself – He revealed Himself,” to indicate that this consisted of a prophecy).
Abraham prayed that his offspring would follow G-d’s ways and remain connected to the soul of the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He also prayed that they would have the merit of themselves being a vehicle for the Divine Presence. As it is written in holy books, “Reading the accounts of the lives of pious men [with the desire of being like them and emulating their ways] is like contemplating Divine knowledge.” In other words, whoever models his behavior on the deeds of the Patriarchs connects himself to the knowledge of G-d, and “by the awakening that he produces below, he causes an awakening in the worlds above,” as the Talmud discusses at length (Hagigah 13a, 14b). Each person can, according to his abilities, reach this level thanks to the faith that he has in pious men and their influence on him.
This also allows us to understand what is written in the section dealing with the sacrifice of Isaac: “An angel of the L-RD called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham’ ”(Genesis 22:11). Why is Abraham’s name called out twice? It is because “Repeating a person’s name is a sign of love” (Bereshith Rabba 56:7).
The Midrash adds: “When the angel told him, ‘Do not stretch out your hand against the lad’ [Genesis 22:12], Abraham did not listen, and he even wanted to spill a little blood (in sacrifice). Hence the angel added, ‘nor do anything to him’ ” (Bereshith Rabba ad loc.).
This is difficult to understand. How could Abraham have wanted to transgress G-d’s commandment, for in the final analysis, if Abraham had done so he would have been committing murder. Can we even imagine such a thing?
Abraham knew that by sacrificing his son as G-d had commanded him, his obedience would have obtained great merit for him and his descendants, and from that day on G-d would favorably remember and forgive Jews for their sins until the end of time. That is what the Sages have explained concerning the verse that states, “And Abraham called the name of that site ‘the L-RD will see’ ” (Genesis 22:14), for “G-d will remember (what could have happened to) the ashes of Isaac, united and destined to secure forgiveness for all generations” (Yerushalmi Taanith 2:4). Abraham desired to express his love for G-d just as G-d had expressed His love to him by calling out “Abraham, Abraham,” and His love for his children when He would teach them the 13 attributes of Divine mercy, as it is written: “The L-RD, the L-RD, G-d, compassionate and gracious …” (Exodus 34:6).
Concerning what is written near the end of our parsha: “I shall surely bless you and greatly increase your offspring” (Genesis 22:17), the Sages have explained, “A blessing for the father and a blessing for his son” (Bereshith Rabba 56:11). Abraham was blessed for his infinite love for G-d, and G-d rewards measure for measure (Shabbat 105b). Abraham knew that he was G-d’s beloved, for G-d only puts those whom He loves to the test, as it is written: “The L-RD admonishes the one He loves” (Proverbs 3:12). Abraham wanted to win G-d’s love for his children after him – “A blessing for the father and a blessing for his son” – and in the same way that G-d loved him and called to him “Abraham, Abraham,” so too would G-d love his children and have mercy on them, for He is “compassionate and gracious.”