Parshat Vayera — Judaism and Cosmopolitanism [*]
This week’s Parsha begins with the pasuk:
“And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.” (Breishit 18:1)
Rashi comments: “in the plains of Mamre: He [Mamre] was the one who counseled him about circumcision. Therefore, He appeared to him [Abraham] in his [Mamre’s] territory.”
Rashi quotes the Midrash in order to explain the apparently unnecessary detail mentioned in the Pasuk that Hashem appeared to Avraham specifically in the “plains of Mamre”. Since Mamre was the one to “counsel him about circumcision” he merited that Hashem appeared to Avraham in his territory.” The question is though, what counsel could Mamre possibly have given to Avraham regarding Brit Milah? Technical advice? Medical advice? Recovery advice?
The answer to that can be found in the Midrash:
“When Hashem said to Avraham to do Brit Milah , Avraham went to ask for the counsel of his three friends.
Aner said to him: `You are already one hundred years old, why cause yourself now such pain?’
Eshkol said to him: `Why make yourself conspicuous amongst your enemies?’
Mamre said to him: `Your G-d who stood by you at the furnace, against the kings at war and during famine, now that he tells you to do Brit Milah you will not listen?!’
Hashem responded to Mamre: ‘ You gave him advice to do Brit Milah, I swear that I will reveal myself to him only in your portion. That is why the pasuk says ` And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre’. ( Breishit Rabbah 42:8)”
A most peculiar Midrash. Apparently the advice that Avraham Avinu asked for was whether or not to obey the commandment of Hashem to do Brit Milah. Why would Avraham Avinu ask anyone such a question? When Avraham was given the Mitzvah of Akeidat Yitzchak at the end of this week’s Parsha he immediately agrees and rushes off to get going.
“And Abraham arose early in the morning, and he saddled his donkey, and he took his two young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for a burnt offering, and he arose and went to the place of which God had told him.” (Breishit 22:3)
“And…arose early: He hastened to [perform] the commandment” (Rashi ibid)
Why was Avraham hesitant to do Brit Milah?
Looking back to last week’s Parsha we find another peculiarity regarding Avraham Avinu’s response to Brit Mila.
“And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him, ‘I am the Almighty God; walk before Me and be perfect. And I will place My covenant between Me and between you, and I will multiply you very greatly.’ And Abram fell upon his face, and God spoke with him, saying, ‘As for Me, behold My covenant is with you, and you shall become the father of a multitude of nations.’ “(Breishit 17:1-4)
These are the pesukim where Hashem appears to Avraham and subsequently gives him the Mitzvah of Brit Milah. The reaction of Avraham to the idea of a Brit is to “fall on his face”. Why does Avraham fall on his face?
“And Abram fell upon his face: from fear of the Shechinah, for as long as he was uncircumcised, he did not have the strength to stand when the Divine Presence stood over him, and that is what is said concerning Balaam (Num. 24:4):“who falls and his eyes are open” (Num. Rabbah 12:8). I found this in the Baraitha of Rabbi Eliezer (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer ch. 29).”
The Ramban explains that it was in order to direct his thoughts on the prophesy. Others explain that it was out of gratitude for the covenant offered to him by Hashem (See Chizkuni and Ha’amek Davar). What is difficult on all these explanations is that the term “Vayipol al panav” (“and he fell on his face” seems to be mentioned regularly in the Torah as en expression of disappointment and as reaction to unpleasant occurrences.
In the episode with Korach it says:
“They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?”
Moses heard and fell on his face. (Bamidbar 16:3-4)
“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron saying, ‘Dissociate yourselves from this congregation, and I will consume them in an instant.’
They fell on their faces and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, if one man sins, shall You be angry with the whole congregation?” (ibid 16:20-22)
The expression repeats itself again when Miriam dies and the people complain and ask for water. (See Bamidbar 20:1-6) A similar mention appears as well in Sefer Yehoshua after the death of 36 men in the war against Ai (See Yehoshua 7:5-6).
Based on this understanding of the expression “and he fell on his face”, could it be that there was an element of an unpleasant surprise for Avraham Avinu when informed by Hashem to do Brit Milah?
I think that it is possible to suggest that indeed there was disappointment and shock for Avraham at the idea of Brit Milah. Avraham Avinu had devoted all of his life to “calling out in the name of Hashem”. He was the father of monotheism and his life’s calling was to spread the belief in one G-d amongst all of humanity. (See Ramabm, Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim Chapter 1 for a beautiful description of Avrahams calling.) Indeed the beginning of this week’s Parsha echoes this trait in Avraham Avinu as he sits at the opening of his tent in anticipation of seeing guests and welcoming them into his home and under the wings of the belief in One G-d.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the opening pesukim of the Parsha emphasizes how despite the accusations of the nations of the world against the Jews for being anti-cosmopolitan and having disassociated themselves from the rest of humanity, we see that Avraham Avinu’s first act after Brit Milah was to return to the opening of his tent and seek out those strangers and invite them in. In support of this idea he quotes a beautiful Midrash (Breishit Rabbah 47:10) that describes the conversation between Avraham and Hashem:
“Avraham said to Hashem;` Until I did Brit Milah the sojourners would come to me, now that I have done Brit Milah will they no longer come to me?” (See Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on Breishit 18:1)
However precisely because of this strongly overriding element in Avraham’s character does the idea of a Brit with Hasehm come to him as a shock.
Rav Yitzchak Hutner in his Sefer Pachad Yitzchak writes:
“Every Covenant includes not only the connection of the sides involved in the covenant but also the exclusion of all those that do not enter the covenant” (Pachad Yitzchak, Inyanei Chanuka).
A covenant therefore means that two sides come together, however at the same time it excludes everyone else. This, for Avraham Avinu, was a “shocking surprise’. Hashem was demanding an obligation to enter a covenant with him which would separate Avraham and his descendants from the rest of humanity.
Rav Hirsch was accurate in describing the concerns of Avraham regarding the implications of Brit Milah, however he was not accurate in describing the intentions of Hashem regarding Brit Milah. Indeed Rav Hirsch does not bring in his commentary the reply of Hashem to Avraham’s concern which is quite a spoiler to the idea he mentioned.
The Midrash there continues:
“Hashem replied to Avraham:`Until you did Brit Milah people (bnei adam) came to you; now that you have done Brit Milah I in my glory will come to you.’ That is why the pasuk says: `And Hashem appeared to Avraham!”
This can explain Avraham’s reaction to the Mitzvah of Brit Milah. It was a turning point in his life and a point which demanded taking a completely different direction regarding his relationship with the rest of mankind. Not a simple request from a man aged 99 who has devoted all his life to bringing close all humans. Avraham falls on his face and goes to ask for counsel from his friends.
[It is worthwhile to see the makhloket between Rashi and the Ramban regarding the meaning of the Pasuk:
“And your name shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”
According to the Ramban “hamon Goyim” is a reference only to Bnei Yisrael!
According to Rashi it is a reference to all the nations of the world. Could these possibly be words of comfort to Avraham after having fallen on his face?]
I recently found support for this idea in an awesome piece in the Sfat Emet:
“Avraham Avinu wholeheartedly wanted to bring all of the creations to Him (Hashem). And Hashem said to him “Lech Lecha etc., and I will make you a great nation etc.”
Avraham thought that it was better that the whole world be devoted and close to Hashem and that there would be no resistance (mitnagdim) to Him. However Hashem showed him that it is better and more correct that there would be a chosen nation set aside to be his. Better there be those that bless and those that curse, and the chosen Nation will overcome all!” (Sfat Emet Parshat Lech Lecha year 5635)
I leave it to you to contemplate the implications and meanings of this “disagreement” between Avraham Avinu and Hashem.
Questions and comments welcome: firstname.lastname@example.org