Its All In the Place

This week’s portion begins with Avraham Avinu having a prophecy amidst “the trees of Mamre”. Our sages also observed an oddity in this vision in that the Torah stresses that the vision was specifically in the trees of Mamre, not just any tree. Mamre was one of Avraham’s friends, specifically the one who gave Avraham Avinu the council to go ahead with the mitzvah of Bris Milah in public exactly as hashem had commanded him. As a result Hashem promised Mamre that he would reward him by revealing himself to Avraham in his trees (Midrash – Bereishis Rabbah 42:8). What value is the reward to Mamre that Hashem will reveal himself in his tree? Is it merely that he should be able to say to others that Avraham had a prophecy in his backyard? Why not give him long life or some other more tangible benefit? The answer to this difficulty lies in developing a deeper understanding about what prophecy is and how it affects our world and our lives. In the continuation of our exploration of this parsha we will develop this idea and things will become clearer.

Setting the Stage for the Future of the Jewish People

It is hard to read through this week’s portion and not focus in on one of the main passages that illustrate the dedication to and the integration of the trait of chessed – loving kindness of Avraham Avinu. Our sages bring out numerous aspects in this passage which indicate that the whole event was really staged to give Avraham the opportunity to generate the merits necessary for the Jewish people to receive and fulfill the Torah many generations later. We find Avraham sitting on the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. Our sages teach us that Avraham was sitting but he wanted to stand in the presence of Hashem who was revealed before him, Hashem insisted that Avraham should sit and in doing so he would be a model for his descendants who will sit in judgment of a Torah law in the Jewish courts of the future and Hashem will stand in their presence while they sit in judgment as it says “And Elokim will stand amongst the congregation of the powerful ones [the judges]” .

The heat of the day was no ordinary heat. Hashem had deliberately taken the sun out of its sheath so as to make it unbearably hot. The plan was that this would keep Avraham, who was recuperating from his Bris Milah a few days earlier, in bed and on the mend. Avraham was completely impervious to the conditions, his essence was to do chessed and that is what he intended to do on this day like any other. The heat was so intense that there were no travelers, this cause Avraham anxiety in that there was no one to be the recipient of his chessed, so Hashem sent three messengers to give him the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim with.

When Avraham saw the messengers he immediately ran towards them, he offered them water which he sent his son Yishmael to draw, and set up a place for them to sit under the tree where he was having his vision of prophecy just moments before. In the merit of having water drawn for them our sages teach that Hashem provided Avraham’s decendents with the well in the dessert for 40 years. He then offered them bread to sustain themselves and he shortly returned with butter, and three tongues of cow with mustard one for each guest. Our sages teach us that the bread he offered and the sustenance he provided is a harbinger for the sustenance that his offspring will get from learning the scripture. He served the messengers who were really angels in disguise meat and butter. The Midrash teaches us that they ate the meat first and then the butter. Many generations later when Moshe went up to Mt Sinai to bring down the Torah those same angels came and said “who is man that you should recognize him? Place your glory among the heavens”. These angels said why give the Torah to man who has an evil inclination and will be challenged to keep the Torah, give the Torah to the angels who are not pulled by such inclinations and will easily keep the Torah without inner struggle. Hashem said why should I give the Torah to you, when I sent you down to visit Avraham you ate meat before dairy, the custom of those who keep the Torah is not to eat dairy immediately after meat. You can not keep the Torah thus I will give it to man!

A careful study of the passage illustrating Avraham’s chessed to the messengers shows that on one level the whole event was Hashem’s way of allowing Avraham to generate merits for his offspring in order that they should receive the Torah and to be a model for them and the lives they will lead when they receive the Torah. What is this all about?

Two Judges – Two Legal Systems

Another important them in this parsha is the numerous subtle references the Torah makes to the contrast between the ways of Avraham and the ways of Lot. We saw above that Avraham was a model for his descendents as judges. He was to sit in the presence of Hashem as the great Torah judges will do in the future. Lot was also appointed as a judge in Sedom. Our sages make a point of contrasting the different legal systems and the relative functions of judges in these systems.

In Sedom the law was that all forms of charity and kindness were against the law. The Gemara in Sanhedrin 109 teaches that there was a young girl in Sedom who gave some food to a poor person and as a result she was tried in the court system and then honeyed and put out in the sun for the vultures and other predators to devour her. Another event that took place was that Eliezer the Servant of Avraham was in Sedom and one of the citizens of Sedom caused him monetary damage, the two went to court and the judge said that Eliezer had to reimburse the damager for the trouble he had to go through to damage his property. At first glance these laws seem odd and backwards even to the most liberal and cultured mind but after deeper analysis there is a very real and very tangible principle at work within them.

One of the most primary questions that our Torah is coming to deal with is how this finite world is affected by the existence of an infinite being God. How a person frames his position on this issue shapes the most central and crucial decisions of his day to day life. For example, if one chooses to assume that God’s infinite being is practically irrelevant in day to day affairs, then undoubtedly what will follow is to take a view that the finite resources allotted within the natural order are all that is available for humanity to be sustained upon. This philosophy perpetuates many of humanity’s most difficult problems. Since there are limited resources to begin with the more people there are who are siphoning off of these resources in order to exist, the less I have for myself. Every new citizen in the country is ultimately taking another slice of the pie. This leads to power struggles, greed, war, and many other serious maladies. Ultimately, societies living under this view of the world will develop leanings within their legal systems and their societal infrastructure that discourage generosity and selflessness. After all what disease could be more damaging in such a society than self destruction by drawing others to become part of it or to strengthen weaker elements within the society by offering them breadbaskets and perks. People who do that must be made example of to show what a deteriorating effect they have on the balance of power and resources. Furthermore, this philosophy leads to insularity to the extent that someone who has been damaged is themselves in some way a villain. Had this person who was damaged been insular to the extent that he should have been, than he would have succeeded at building himself a fortress of security and safety within which he could gain refuge and become impervious to damage and effect from outsiders. The fact that he hasn’t achieved that goal yet shows that he is really just looking for trouble.

Civil Law and moral standards have to be adjusted in such a society in order to meet the ever changing needs of the collective body of individuals within it, in order to attain the goals mentioned above. Ultimately law and morality are therefore only arbitrary constellations generated by man to serve man. Of course there has to be some limitations upon the freedoms of the citizens, if only to preserve some semblance of law and order, so that everyone has a fair chance to manipulate the system to serve him his piece of the pie.

The Torah is presenting a drastically different view about the question above. The existence of the infinite being – God is directly relevant and intimately connected to every element of life all the time. In the same way that God initially willed creation into being from nothing, so to He is constantly sustaining it as a function of nothing more than His will. Nature is merely a veil over His power and ultimately a vehicle through which God delivers useful resources to humanity that keep us going from day to day. These resources are generated by a being who has unlimited ability to keep producing them through this system. Never is there fear of nature running out of resources nor is there a need to be concerned about how much others have. The only problem humanity has is that God is not delivering these resources without any strings attached. He has revealed His Divine will through prophecy into the world and has linked the productivity of the natural order to the actions of human beings. The Gemara in Brachos teaches us that a person should be especially careful to say the psalm of “Ashrei” three times  a day because it has both crucial features in the equation mentioned within it. Firstly this psalm contains the verse that says “You [God] open Your Hand and You satisfy the needs of every living creature”. Also this psalm has all of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet listed in order as the first letter of each verse. Rav Yosef Chaim Philagee also known as the Ben Ish Chai explains that once the Torah, which is comprised of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, God linked the blessing and input that He eminates into creation to the fulfillment of the Torah and its statutes. Of course this philosophy has lead many to ask the obvious question that if this is so how can there be wicked people who are prosperous and vice versa. This is a legitimate question and really deserves a treatise of its won, clearly beyond the scope of this forum.

Moreover, law and morality in a society built on this view are not subject to change, they are immutable. They are expressions of the Divine will for the sake of revealing to man the proper way in which he can achieve his purpose in this world. Torah judges therefore have a very interesting name, they are called “Elohim” – judges also one of the names of God . The Talmud in Sanhedrin teaches us that a Torah judge who correctly applies the Torah law without any iota of flaw is a partner with God in creation. These Torah judges are not adjudicating laws that are meant to facilitate ease in society they are a conduit for Gods will to enter into the world. A society built on this view also encourages charity, loving kindness and in addition responsibility for one’s own actions. The reason charity and giving in such a society makes sense is because everything I have is a gift from the Almighty, to be selfish with it is in some way denying that fact, a very serious crime. Taking responsibility for one’s actions, for example damaging someone else’s property, is also a natural outgrowth of such a philosophy. Since what people have is a function of God’s will that they should have it in order to fulfill their potential in this world, it follows that I should both appreciate what I have as such and take care of it responsibly and respect what others have as well for the same reason.

Fighting for the Other Team

With this foundation we can answer two difficult questions about the destruction of Sedom. One question is why should Avraham be so deeply concerned about the upheaval of such a morally bankrupt and cruel society, to the extent that He is pleading with the Almighty to save them? Furthermore, why should God say “Behold can I hide from Avraham that which I plan to do with Sedom?” Why does God feel He has to spill the beans to Avraham, in the first place, about what He is about to do in Sedom?

We saw in Parshas Lech Lecha that Avraham refined himself so much that he transformed himself form being Avram – the father of Aram, into Avraham – the father of nations. As the father of nations he has taken the role of being responsible for the rectification of all of the world’s problems. He was the one who came to understand God’s will for all of humanity and made a covenant with Him to spread this message to all of them by living this life of Divine service. Ultimately the importance of the message that the Torah is teaching is so fundamental that all human beings have to be affected at least by the most basic principles within it. To accept the covenant of the Torah is to accept this responsibility for humanity as a whole.

At this point we can begin to unravel the difficulties we raised earlier in this article. God is communicating to Avraham through prophecy. What is prophecy? If we are working within the philosophy that God’s involvement with the world is central and constant as well as tied to the activities of human beings then prophecy is an absolutely necessary element in the world. There absolutely has to be prophecy because how else is humanity going to actually know with clarity what God expects of them. It would be pathetically cruel and unfair for God to link the actions of human beings to His involvement in the world and in their lives without giving them a clear understanding of what the rules are. When the Torah was given it says that the whole world was consumed by the smell of the Garden of Eden. The meaning of this teaching is that when God’s will is revealed in the world and becomes clear then, not only are those privy to hear it affected but, the whole universe is affected. That information has now become part and parcel of the tangible reality in which we live, it is engraved into reality. One must now ignore the will of God to seek asylum from it, he can no longer claim he didn’t know. The Bible is still the all time best seller for this very reason. Who wants to feel the anxiety generated by not owning a copy of it that they could look at if they wanted to? Once it’s in the drawer we can assuage our consciousness by saying that we haven’t ignored God completely.

The prophecy to Avraham is not just God delivering information to Avraham, it affects the whole balance of the universe. Where the prophecy takes place becomes a holy place, a place where God’s presence can be accessed more readily. Mamre was given the greatest gift a man could ever know. His back yard was transformed into a place where he and others could now more easily and more readily tap into the tangible revealed will of God.

The Ultimate Sacrifice

Towards the end of the parsha God presents Avraham with the greatest of all of the ten tests that he endured, to bind his beloved son Yitzchak and sacrifice him to God. There is so much written on this topic it is hardly possible to do it justice in this forum, but there is one point which bears attention in this context. Why is this sacrifice such a test for Avraham? God comes to Avraham and says I want you to sacrifice your beloved son. It’s kind of difficult to argue with the creator of the universe, when He is revealing His immutable will in no uncertain terms. Surely there is more under the surface than meets the eye. A more careful look at the kind of person Avraham was may shed light on the problem. God says to His ministering angels earlier in the parsha, “Behold how can I hide from Avraham that which I am going to do in Sedom? And Avraham is going to beget a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him, because I know of him that he will command his children and his household after him that they shall guard the way of God to do kindness and judgment….”.

It is indeed outstanding that the crowning feature of Avraham was not that he did kindness and judgment, but rather that God knows of him that he will instruct his descendants to do the same and they will fulfill it. More than anything else Avraham was the one man who was such a good example and such a good teacher that his message must pass down the chain of the generations. If this is the essence of Avraham’s crowning achievement in the world how could it be that he won’t have descendants to pass this message on to? The test for Avraham was that it was inconsistent with everything God had been grooming him for until this point in life. The test was not to sacrifice his beloved son, for that to Avraham would be natural. Rather the test is that he thought he understood God’s will and plan in the creation and his own personal role in it. From the age of 3 he had been searching for and contemplating the ways of God. God has been guiding him and building him up to become the father of the Jewish nation, the nation who will bring kindness and judgment into the world. Now God is telling him all of that was not what it is about. This is Avraham’s greatest test, understanding himself and his true relationship with God in this world. The truth is that is the essence of all of Avraham’s ten tests and the tests of all men. When Avraham passes this test and subjugates his will to God on the highest level he is told “…for now I know that you fear God – (“yirah” from the Hebrew root to see) and you have not withheld you’re your beloved first born son from Me”. Immediately Avraham responds by naming the place he is in “God will see that it will be said in the future about this place, on the mountain of God he will be seen”.

Also here we see that Avraham fulfills in this place the revealed will of God at the highest level of sacrifice possible for a man to achieve and he sees and fears God and names the place he is in the place where God sees and a person can be seen by God. This place is where the Beis Hamikdash was ultimately built not because that was a fitting place of real-estate but because the Beis Hamikdash is meant to be the junction place where a person can have a direct tangible interaction with God in this world.

Laying Down the Law

This Beis Hamikdash is not only a place for a person to see God and be seen by God, but also from there God’s will comes down into the world through the Sanhedrin – high court. It is by no coincidence that the point of junction for man to experience his relationship with God should also be the place where God streams down from on high his immutable will, his laws and statutes that a person shall keep and live by them.