By Rabbi Ben Sternman
At the end of last week’s Torah portion, Abraham entered into the covenant between God and the Jewish people through the act of circumcision, which is important information needed to understand the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. This week, our portion begins [Genesis 18:1-2]: “The Eternal appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.” If you were to pluck only this verse and a half out of context, there would be so much that needs explanation.
Who did God appear to? Why did God appear to him? Why was he sitting by the entrance of the tent? Why does Torah mention that it was hot? Who were the three men? So many questions off of only 33 words! Fortunately, context and commentators answer our questions. This is the continuation of last week’s Torah portion, so God is appearing to Abraham, who is recovering from his circumcision. According to Rashi, God appeared to Abraham because God was “paying a visit to the sick. Said R. Hama b. Hanina: It was the third day after his circumcision and the Holy One came to ask how he was.” Also according to Rashi, Abraham was sitting at the entrance of the tent because hospitality was so important to Abraham that he wanted “to see whether there might be any passersby whom he could invite into his home.” Why was it hot? Rashi answers this too: “The Holy One took the sun out of its case so Abraham would not be bothered with guests. But seeing that Abraham was suffering from the lack of guests, God brought the angels to him in the guise of men.”
Now we get to the difficult question: Who exactly were these three men? Rashi says that they were angels in the guise of men. Rashbam asserts that it was actually God who appeared: “There are many places where an angel is identified as if it were the Shekhinah [God’s indwelling presence on earth].” Ibn Ezra understands the men as part of the appearance of God: “The Eternal appeared to him in a prophetic vision, after which he ‘looked up’ and saw three angels.” But Bekhor Shor raises the point: “The straightforward sense is that they were actual human beings. Angels do not eat or drink…” So who were they? Were they God, angels, or men? I think the answer is “Yes.”
Yes, it was God who appeared to Abraham; yes, they were angels in Abraham’s life; yes, they looked and acted like men. I believe that God acts in our lives, that God gives us the meaning we need when we need it, and that God does so through other human beings. That is, people act as if they were angels standing in your way to point out the message God is trying to convey. How many times has someone, often a stranger, said just the right thing, at just the right time, for you to understand how God is acting in your life? Or has anyone come up to you to thank you for what you thought was an inconsequential act or word but that had enormous meaning in their lives? I believe that God uses us to act as angels in other people’s lives.
So let us be angels to carry out God’s work in this world. Let us act kindly, speak gently, and treat others with a generosity of spirit so that we become the agents of God’s will in this world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice-president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.