Avraham Greets Angels In a Vision

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Last time, we saw R. Arama lay out a view of prophecy, at the end of which he objected to how often Rambam claimed incidents in Tanach were actually visions. Surprisingly, he then agrees with Rambam about Avraham’s welcoming the three men/angels at the beginning of Parshat Vayera, although not for the reasons Rambam gave.
In his view, the verses make clear it was a vision- Bereshit 18;2 says Avraham “saw” twice (the second one unnecessarily), and verse 22 says Avraham was still standing before Hashem (when he seems to have left, taken care of the angels, escorted them on their way, and returned).
Ramban objected to Rambam’s idea, partially because he saw no reason a vision would include details such as Sarah making bread for the guests. R. Arama responds a) visions follow ordinary human paths of thought and b) the detail made an important point, showed Avraham his circumcision had elevated him. Before, Avraham welcomed human guests; the vision shows him welcoming angels, exactly as he had always done, to make clear he had taken a step higher in his hosting.
It also showed him the value of his enthusiasm for and efforts in acting kindly. Seeing himself and Sarah acting as they commonly did showed Avraham Hashem valued their routine, as if an image of their activity was being etched into Hashem’s palace walls, as it were. (The flip side is Yechezkel 8, where the prophet is shown misdeeds of the people of his time—one such vision made the point, and one vision here, of Avraham and Sarah doing well, did the same).
Third—R. Arama says it’s the most important, in his view—including Sarah in the vision allowed Hashem to show her laughing at the news, a reminder Avraham had laughed in disbelief. At the time, Hashem had not wanted to make a point of it. Including it in the vision here was a way to encourage him to do better. To be sure Avraham took it as constructive criticism, gentle admonishment rather than angry rebuke, Hashem had the vision show Sarah doing it, to depersonalize it for Avraham. (In R. Arama’s view, then, Sarah never actually laughed).
Providence and Prayer
A fourth reason for the vision takes us back to themes we’ve seen before, Hashem’s interest in teaching Avraham about the judgment of Sodom, to stimulate him to prayer on their behalf. It makes Avraham aware both of the providence which calls them to account for their deeds and prayer as a possible way to mitigate the deserved punishment headed their way.
R. Arama notes the verse inserts a break in the vision; after the angels leave, the verse says Avraham was still standing before Hashem, which R. Arama takes to mean he entered a more awake version of prayer, why the verse says Avraham drew close (va-yigash Avraham) after hearing what might happen to Sodom.
During this transition, he thinks Avraham might have taken the opportunity to go outside, find a place with a clearer view of Sodom, to better focus his prayers. The idea explains why Bereshit 19;27 tells us Avraham woke in the morning to the place where he had stood before Hashem, and looked out on Sodom (where the episode started in Avraham’s tent, with no clear point for the action having shifted to a place where he could see Sodom; if we take the story as having happened in physical terms, he did escort the angels, then seemed to return to his tent. When did he move to see Sodom?
R. Arama includes another interesting aside: Lot and Yosef experience and speak with angels where we have no reason to think they achieved the status of prophet. Non-prophets cannot have a vision, leading Rambam to say they must have had a proto-prophecy. R. Arama thinks what Rambam declared impossible, angels did have a way of appearing in physical form to people unworthy of prophecy.)
Avraham’s Rise in Prophecy
We have previously seen two ideas to which R. Arama now returns, the concept of a prophet in the philosophers’ sense, someone whose actions distinguish him/her by their excellence, and R. Arama’s view Avraham progressed through the path of philosophers’ prophecy on the way to the true prophecy we now see. He acted well for a long time and developed his intellect to the point where philosophers would respect him as a prophet both of action and intellect.
Hashem then stepped in, enlightened Avraham to truths he would not have found on his own, and gave him the mitzvah of circumcision, removing the bodily blemish which prevented truer prophecy. Soon after (R. Arama implies it was that very day, where Rashi records R. Chama b. Chanina’s view it was on the third day after the circumcision), the vision of the three men came to Avraham.
For all people had already thought of him as a prophet, he was not yet one, because Lot was still a member of his family, Avraham had not yet shown his disregard for financial gain (as he did by rejecting reward from the king of Sodom; we should not overlook the jab R. Arama has just taken at how wrong people can be in their assessments). After Avraham freed himself of both those impediments, he was taken to a first level of prophecy, where he was shown what he had not been able to believe, Hashem can overcome Nature (overcoming the predictions of the stars), and give him an heir.
I will not review what he has said in earlier she’arim. He does add here the idea Avraham had reached a level now where he experienced the prophecy shalev ve-shaket, serene and quiet, which he infers from the verse omitting any mention of Avraham having fallen on his face, as he did earlier in the Torah. [I think he means to disagree with Rambam’s portrayal in Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7;5, “and they all [prophets other than Moshe], when they prophesy, tremble in all their limbs, the strength of their bodies gives way, etc.” R. Arama has Avraham reach the level of physically serene prophecy.] Avraham’s Temporary Residence with Mamre
Philosophical messages laid out, R. Arama turns to details of the story, parts of which I feel able to convey here. He assumes—his phrase is ha-lev gomer, the heart concludes—Avraham worried about who would protect his household after the circumcision, worried enemy kings (such as the four kings he defeated to save Lot and the people of Sodom) might hear of his incapacitation and take the opportunity to attack and plunder his family. He consulted with his friend Mamre, who suggested staying with him, under his protection, until he recovered.
Aside from explaining why the verse tells us Avraham was in Elonei Mamre, the trees of Mamre, it tells us why Avraham was residing in tents, when R. Arama is sure he must have had a house. [I noticed this line of reasoning because it twice includes certainties others might question. R. Arama is first convinced Avraham needed to worry about who would protect his house while he was fulfilling a commandment of Hashem’s, and is also sure Avraham would not have spent his life living in tents. To me, it’s particularly interesting because R. Arama himself has pointed out how others read the Torah from within the parameters of philosophy, not open to possibilities they have not previously considered. It’s a danger for all of us, I think he proves here, we make assumptions which might not be the only way to view the world.] Avraham Welcomes Guests
Having the news of Sarah’s upcoming pregnancy come from guests they welcomed showed Avraham and Sarah they were being rewarded for their good deeds in welcoming guests. It also told them of reward and punishment in the world. It was also a way for the Torah to tell us about the couple’s regularly welcoming guests (we do not see it anywhere else); for a one time event, one angel, to heal Avraham’s circumcision wound, would have been enough of a reward. Three came to let us know Avraham and Sarah often hosted such people.
Avraham’s conduct shows his excellence. Seeing the angels from afar, he could have ignored them as out of his purview, especially in his weakened state (R. Arama assumes a weakened physical state will continue in the visionary state as well, which didn’t have to be true, and which fits well with his view of the prophecy as a way to show Avraham he and Sarah have done well by welcoming guests—it continues the physical world into the visionary one).
Instead, he ran to them, and phrased his invitation to say they would be doing him a favor by honoring him with their presence.
His reference to ve-sa’adu libechem, satiate your hearts, has halachic import. It shows us bread refreshes people in a fuller way than other foods, one of the verses which supported Chazal’s idea bircat ha-mazon, the Grace After Meals, comes primarily for meals with bread. It shows us how Avraham’s casual phrasing teaches us valuable lessons.
The Angels Eat
The Torah tells us the angels ate the food Avraham served them, throwing commentators into a tizzy—angels aren’t physical, and shouldn’t be able to eat! R. Arama mentions those who point to this detail as evidence the experience was a prophetic vision, and others who decide the “angels” must have been human prophets (Tanach does refer to prophets with the word malach, messenger, in some places, making the idea less outlandish than might initially seem).
R. Arama rejects both views, the latter because the Torah twice makes a point of their having eaten (here and when they go to Lot’s house). Were they humans, the Torah could have said Avraham and Lot served them food. It made a point of their eating to show it was unusual.
In Bamidbar Rabbah 48, R. Meir also thought they ate, and attributes it to his version of “when in Rome,” the angels eating to fall in with human custom, as Moshe Rabbenu refrained from eating or drinking in his two forty-day sojourns on Sinai to receive the Torah.
R. Arama thinks their eating focused on the spiritual aspects of the meal, avoiding prohibited foods, making blessings before and after, Avraham’s good intentions in inviting them, his having worked himself to prepare the meal for them. Much as Chazal said the pleasing smell of offerings in the Beit HaMikdash was created by proper obedience to Hashem’s Will, the angels here “ate” the good deeds of the meal (Avraham’s efforts).
Such deeds and focus are their natural food, he says. It implies a daring idea he doesn’t quite say. I think he thinks angels do take in nourishment, the nourishment of being involved with fulfillments of Hashem’s Will. They ate physically here, as part of following the customs of the place where they were, the nourishment coming from the spiritual aspects of the physical food.
He also denies Moshe refrained from food as fully as the simple reading of Shemot 34;28 and Devarim 9;9 and 18 puts it. Each time, Moshe was being nourished by the food he ate before he went up the mountain (like extended release pills). He looked like angels in his not ingesting anything, even as he was being still nourished in a human way.
The reverse was true for the angels here—they did the human physical act of eating, while nourished in their ordinary angelic way, from the spiritual.
Avraham’s Argument on Behalf of Sodom
As the last piece of this sha’ar I can present, R. Arama offers a reading of Avraham’s attempt to convince Hashem to spare Sodom. The question asks itself: what was the progression from fifty to ten? Why would he have thought fifty might be speared and, after Hashem agreed, what did Avraham add each time?
Avraham’s challenge “will you destroy the righteous with the wicked,” is too obvious a problem for R. Arama to believe Avraham thought Hashem might have overlooked it. He meant to say Hashem sometimes must spare the wicked along with the righteous, because the righteous could not survive without them. In society, where people rely on each other for various goods, Hashem will sometimes be “forced” to allow evildoers to live, for the servuces they provide the righteous. R. Arama thinks Hashem made this same point to Yonah at Nineveh—the evil parents had to be spared to take care of the innocent babies. [Aside from whether I’m convinced by his reading of Yonah, R. Arama seems to me to read a somewhat anachronistic level of interdependence back into Sodom, when people lived more self-sufficient lives. To me, he will get less convincing, although always interesting, in a moment.] He chose fifty because it is a large enough group to be immobile, unable to easily move to a new location [an again unclear idea, given Avraham’s peripatetic life, Ya’akov’s return from Charan and eventually descent to Egypt], while too small to found a full settlement on their own. Big enough to have to stay, small enough to still need the evildoers.
Hashem’s quick agreement worried Avraham, who took it as evidence there were not that many. He continued downward, apologetically, each time relying on the difficulty of travel to justify saving a society to support the righteous Which is why he stopped at ten, below which it was obviously too easy to travel to make any kind of argument on behalf of saving the others.
There’s always more, with R. Arama, we’ll have to stop here, with a sha’ar which mostly showed us a view of prophecy as a form of human knowledge higher than and different from ordinary knowledge. To get there, Avraham had to pass through all the usually recognized versions of human excellence, and was then shown a world he never imagined. A world from within which he perfected himself further, and sought ways to help others as well. Sometimes successfully, the guests he welcomed, and sometimes not, such as the people of Sodom.

About Gidon Rothstein

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