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Parashat Vayera 5778 — 11/04/2017

Parashat Vayera 5778 — 11/04/2017

Bereishit 18:1 – 22:24

Gd appeared to him [Avraham] 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: behold, three men were standing beside him. He saw them, so he ran toward them from the entrance
of the tent and prostrated himself toward the ground. (18:1-2)

The commentators disagree on the nature of the angels who appeared to Avraham. First, they are identified as “men,” although it later becomes obvious that they were angels. Our tradition identifies them as Rafael, the angel of healing who was sent to heal Avraham from his recent circumcision (and who later performs a second task by saving Lot); Michael, who informs Sarah she will give birth; and Gavriel, who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. Second, while all prophets (except Moses) received their prophecy “…in a vision … [or] … in a dream…” (Bamidbar 12:6) it appears that Avraham is perfectly alert and awake, and is able to run around preparing a banquet for his unexpected guests.

Abarbanel notes that there are two broad categories of explanations given. In the first (Ralbag, ibn Ezra) the men are actually men. The word translated as angel actually means messenger, and can refer to a human messenger. A similar question is raised at the beginning of parashat Vayishlach, where Ya’akov sends messengers/angels to Esav. The second approach (Rashi, Ramban, Rashbam) describes them as spiritual entities who were miraculously provided with a physical, human body. Note that Rashi is consistent here with his approach in Vayishlach, where he simply comments, “actual angels.”

Abarbanel objects to both these interpretations. As far as the first one goes, he notes that at that time Avraham was the only prophet in the world, yet the angel states categorically that he would return in a year’s time and Sarah would have a child. If he were a man, how would he know without prophecy, and even if he did, how could he speak in his own name and not in Gd’s name? Where did they get the power to save Lot by striking the men of Sodom blind? How were they able to save Lot and destroy Sodom? Ordinarily, men cannot do these things.

As for the second explanation, that the men were actually angels, all the prophecy questions are taken care of. But the fact that these angels appeared to Avraham (and presumably Sarah, who heard the prediction that she would have a child), leads to the question: where did their human form and substance come from? And when they left earth, wouldn’t we be able to find that substance somewhere, or did it just vanish into thin air? And what about the foods they ate? And why could Avraham (and Sarah) see them but nobody else could?

Abarbanel takes a different approach altogether. He contends that whenever someone in Tanach “sees” messengers as men, it was because Gd caused them to see something that didn’t exist at all! “The miracle was the fact that Gd caused something that didn’t exist at all to be perceived by selected individuals.” Gd just creates the vision in the person’s mind. I believe this approach is similar to Maimonides’ approach. Maimonides was the great rationalist, and although he certainly acknowledged that Gd could perform miracles, he attempted to find naturalistic explanations for them. However putting the entire proceedings in Avraham’s mind is a bit hard to square at least with the simple meaning of the text. For example, Avraham ran to the tent and had Sarah knead 3 measures of flour (they were pretty large measures by the way – about 28 liters per measure) to make bread, and he ran to “the lad” (identified as Yishmael in the Rabbinic literature) who slaughtered a calf and prepared it (some say three calves). The question is, did this all take place in Avraham’s fevered imagination? Had you asked Sarah after the fact, would she have said, “of course, I baked bread for three wayfarers” or would she have looked at you as if you were crazy? Would Yishmael have had a bloody knife in his hand, or would he be happily fooling around like a young boy does? The plain sense of the text is that the events described happened on the physical level.

I would like, therefore, to use some ideas from physics, which we have discussed on previous occasions, to propose another possible way of understanding the text. We have discussed that the universe is structured in layers, with deeper layers being more powerful and more abstract. In fact, the more surface layers are nothing more than a kind of projection outward of the deeper layers, a concretization of the deeper, abstract values. For example, an atom is made of subatomic particles and their interaction. Yet when we consider the atomic layer by itself, much of the detail of the subatomic layer is lost, averaged out or smoothed away if you will. If we want to, we can derive the properties of each type of atom from the more abstract layer, but we can just as easily catalog their properties (e.g. in the Periodic Table) and not deal with the details.

There is the same kind of structure on the spiritual side, only things are a bit more flexible there, as we are not dealing with physical creatures at all. Angels of the order of Michael, Gavriel and Rafael exist on a very subtle level – they are like actual laws of nature. When they have specific reactions with the physical world, it appears that they are able to project themselves downward into the “sub-lunar” realms if need be. Thus, they are able to assume physical characteristics, appear to people, or appear only to those people whose perception is refined enough to see a bit beyond the gross physical, to perceive with their mind’s eye, the way some people sense the presence of a departed loved one on occasion. When projected into the physical, these spiritual beings lose none of their spiritual abilities, but appear to us to be “men” who eat and drink and then move on. And being spiritual beings in nature, they remind us that we too are spiritual beings. They may bless us with good news about childbirth or the like, but their main blessing is that they wake us up to our own unbounded nature. Well worth cleaning up a few dirty dishes, isn’t it?