The Deeds of the Fathers are a Sign for the Children
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” (Genesis 18:1). The Sages say, “What does ‘in the heat of the day’ mean? Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina replied, ‘It was the third day after Abraham’s circumcision, and the Holy One, blessed be He, came and asked about his welfare’ ” (Bava Metzia 86b).
I read a question in the book Midrash Moshe that was asked in the name of “Mizrachi”. It seems to follow from this passage in the Gemara that the most painful period following circumcision is the third day, whereas tractate Shabbat (134b) asserts that the first day of a baby’s circumcision is the most dangerous one. If such is the case, why did the Holy One, blessed be He, not visit Abraham on the first day of his circumcision?
It is also stated that the Holy One, blessed be He, appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamre because Mamre had given Abraham advice on circumcision (Bereshith Rabba 42). This enabled him to merit that the Shechinah would reveal itself on his territory.
This apparently needs some explanation, for in what way did Abraham need advice on circumcision? What was Abraham hesitant about? He had not hesitated to throw himself into the fiery furnace of Ur Kasdim (Genesis 15:7), and he had done so without question! How much more would he have no reason to fear circumcising himself? In addition, we must understand why Abraham was not content with asking for the advice of only one friend, but three: Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Did he therefore have the least doubt about performing this great and important mitzvah, since it was going to make him “perfect” (Nedarim 31b) and faultless? He even became, at that point in time, the chariot of the Shechinah (Zohar I:213b), which his soul had always yearned for.
We must explain that Abraham had no need whatsoever for the advice of Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre. Even if these three had tried to discourage him, he would not have listened to them and would have carried out the mitzvah in joy. However he wanted, despite everything, to ask them for advice so that they would know what he was about to do. Since they were the greatest men of their generation, people would quickly find out that Abraham had asked them for advice on circumcision, and thus the whole world would have known of Abraham’s devotion, an old man who did not hesitate to accomplish the commandment of his Creator, even if it involved his own blood.
An additional reason why Abraham wanted the advice of his friends is that he wanted to make the trial even more difficult on himself, for he knew perfectly well that they would dread the thought of doing such a thing, especially at such an advanced age. In particular they feared that he would want them circumcised as well, an idea that clearly terrified them, and so they tried to prevent it. However Abraham circumcised himself all the same, be it at the price of the friendship and affection that united them. Thus his reward would be greatly enhanced because of the fact that he was ready to forgo his friends if they did not follow him in serving G-d. Yet despite all this, Mamre still advised him to circumcise himself, which is why he merited that G-d should reveal Himself on his territory, for not only did he not allow himself to be frightened by the idea of circumcision, he also spread the news of it, as Abraham had wanted. Nevertheless it is obvious that Abraham was resolute in carrying out the command to circumcise himself from the time he had received it, without any need for Mamre’s advice.
From everything that we have said, we see the great devotion of our father Abraham. Not only did he put himself in danger by circumcising himself, but he wanted to proclaim this mitzvah – as well as the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He – to the entire world. This is a lesson for all the generations to come, namely that a person should not be content with loving G-d; he should be ready to give his life for Him and not think that he can achieve perfection in serving G-d without doing so. In every place and using all possible means, a person should proclaim that the Holy One, blessed be He, is G-d. This is what Abraham did, for he wanted to share every mitzvah he performed with the whole world.
This lessens our question concerning the fact that the Holy One, blessed be He, did not come and immediately visit Abraham on the first day of his circumcision, since from that point on Abraham became perfect and G-d’s light revealed itself to him. This is alluded to in the verse, “The L-RD appeared to him,” which indicates that he received a mark of great holiness, as the Ohr HaHaim writes: “Whoever carries the mark of holiness, the Shechinah rests on him.” Consequently, why did G-d not reveal himself to Abraham immediately?
The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted Abraham to truly feel that he could possibly die, and for the whole world to realize that he had put himself in grave danger. This certainly brought about a magnificent sanctification of G-d’s Name, something that would not have happened if G-d had visited him on the first day, for then he would have been immediately healed. In that case, Abraham would not have been in such grave danger, and therefore G-d’s Name would not have been so greatly sanctified. The fact that G-d waited three days enabled people to see just how Abraham had put himself in great danger. Even though the Holy One, blessed be He, did not visit him, not only did that not demoralize him, but on the contrary it made him happy! Hence because of Abraham a sanctification of G-d’s Name occurred, and in fact such had always been his desire and wish. It was only after the danger passed, when the pain and weakness left him, that the Holy One, blessed be He, came to visit him.
All this leads us to a lesson of prime importance: A person is guided in the way that he desires to take (Makot 10b). Since Abraham wanted to serve G-d by actually being at risk of dying, to the point that his soul would leave his body, Heaven granted this desire and the Shechinah visited him only on the third day following his circumcision.
I listened to a question about this that my oldest son, Raphael Meir Amram, asked at the Shabbat table: Why is it only concerning the sacrifice of Isaac that the Torah explicitly writes that it was a test, as it states, “G-d tested Abraham” (Genesis 22:1), an expression that we do not find with the other nine trials that he underwent. Moreover, Rabbi Moshe Ibgui Shlita asked me why only Abraham was put to the test, whereas the other Patriarchs did not undergo such explicit hardships.
This is what I told them: Abraham was the one who traced out the path to follow, and he shows us how to behave in the worst trials. Because of his great strength, he bequeathed this path as a heritage to his descendents to the end of time. Thus before Abraham, a person had no chance of conducting himself this way even in simple trials, and even less so in difficult ones, such as sacrificing one’s love for another. An example of this would be a father sacrificing the love he feels for his son uniquely for the Holy One, blessed be He, without any second thoughts, pride, or any other benefits. It is true that even non-Jews gave their children over to Molech (Leviticus 18:21), but it goes without saying that they only sought glory and pride by doing so.
We should realize that the love of a non-Jew for his son is an external sentiment, one that in no way resembles that of a Jew. The Jew, other than his natural parental love for his son, wants to see him pursue his course, and he wants to transmit a knowledge and love of G-d to him.
In this, Abraham demonstrated heroic courage in all the trials that he underwent, and he gave us – we his descendants – the strength to pursue his path in every test or hardship. This is why, up to the time of Isaac’s sacrifice, the word “test” is not used, for all that preceded it concerned only Abraham himself. It dealt with his own purification and elevation in serving G-d, and it was for his own spiritual benefit. As the Holy One, blessed be He, said when He commanded Abraham to leave for the land of Canaan: “Lech lecha [Go for yourself]” (Genesis 12:1) – go for your own good, for your own benefit.
However this presents a difficulty, since for the sacrifice of Isaac the expression used is the same: “Ve’lech lecha [And go for yourself] into the land of Moriah” (Genesis 22:2). Now there, what good, what personal benefit would come to him for having slaughtered his only son Isaac?
It is clear that in this trial as well, Abraham experienced great personal satisfaction and good. This allows us, his descendents, to learn to walk in his ways. It was an extremely difficult trial, one that not only affected him personally, but touched upon the future of the entire Jewish nation. To overcome it, he had to sacrifice the love he had for his son, meaning the most valuable thing to a man. We find an illustration of this in the story of King Zedekiah. When Nebuchadnezzar wanted to torture him, he slaughtered his sons before his very eyes, and only afterwards did he blind him, as it is written: “The king of Babylonia slaughtered Zedekiah’s sons before his eyes. He also slaughtered the officers of Judah in Riblah, and he blinded Zedekiah’s eyes” (Jeremiah 52:10-11). From this we see just how powerful the feelings of a father are for his son. It was this feeling, something that a man has no power over, that Abraham was asked to renounce for the Holy One, blessed be He, by sacrificing Isaac. However once he emerged victorious from that trial, we his descendents merited to more easily overcome our own trials.