Yeshivat Orot Shaul, Ra'anana

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Beit Hamidrash

And the Lord Appeared to HimƁnd He Raised His Eyes and Looked

By: Rav Itamar Eldar




            Parashat Vayera opens and closes with a description of the vigorous activity of Avraham. At the very beginning of the parasha we read about how Avraham exerted himself to welcome his guests and provide them with the best he had to offer:

 

And he raised his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground… And Avraham hastened into the tent to Sara, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes. And Avraham ran to the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it to the young man; and he hurried to prepare it. And he tookbutter, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they ate. (Bereishit 18:2-8)

 

            Avraham does not rest for a moment; his determination to sweeten his guests' stay does not abate until the objective is reached.

 

            Similarly, we read at the end of the parasha:

 

And Avraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Yitzchak his son, and broke up the wood for the burnt offering and rose up, and went to the place of which God had told him… And Avraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it upon Yitzchak his son; and he took the fire in his hand, and the knife, and they went both of them together… And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Avraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Yitzchak his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Avrahamstretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. (Bereishit 22:3-10)

 

            Once again, there is neither hesitation nor a moment of pause. Step by step, one action followed by another, all in order to reach the desired end, in this case – the slaughter of Avraham's son, Yitzchak.

 


Two Trials


 

            Intuitively speaking, when we compare the two incidents, the strength of character displayed in the latter seems to be far greater than that exhibited in the former. For one cannot compare the sacrifice and self-effacement required of the righteous Avraham in order to slaughter his only son, to the dedication and devotion necessary to welcome his guests in fitting manner, even on the assumption that it was the third day following his circumcision and one of the most scorching days of the summer. It is reasonable to think that anybody would be willing to undergo ten trials like that of welcoming guests in such circumstances, provided that not once will he be asked to sacrifice his son to God. But as we shall see, the matter may be viewed from an entirely different perspective, that of the supreme Righteous One. In order to appreciate this perspective, let us take a closer look at the situation described at the beginning of the parasha:

 

And the Lord appeared to him in Elonei Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. And he raised his eyes and looked, and lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground. And he said, My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away. (Bereishit 18:1-3)

 

            The parasha opens with God's appearance to Avraham at Elonei Mamre. Immediately afterwards, in the very next verse, Avraham raises his eyes and sees three men. The first verse seems to be saying that God revealed Himself to Avraham, but the content of this revelation is totally missing. The purpose of this revelation is unclear, as is the message given to Avraham, for immediately in the next verse, Scripture moves on to another story – Avraham's three guests. The midrash deals with these questions:[1]

 

"And the Lord appeared to him in Elonei Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day." What is [meant by] "in the heat of the day"? Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina said: That day was the third day after Avraham's circumcision, and the Holy One, blessed be He, came to ask about Avraham's [welfare]. (Bava Metzi'a 86b)

 

            The purpose of the revelation, according to R. Chama, was to visit the sick, God wishing to pay Avraham Avinu a visit three days after his circumcision. This explains why no message or words accompany this revelation, it consisting exclusively of God's very appearance to Avraham.

 

            The next verse, according to this understanding, is unrelated to the revelation, and no connection should be drawn between the story of Avraham's guests and the revelation that immediately precedes it. According to this approach, not only are the two stories unconnected, but there is even a certain degree of dissonance between the two. For verse 2 opens with the words, "And he raised his eyes and looked," without even a hint that the revelation described in the previous verse had terminated.

 

            The omission of Avraham's name and the absence of any description of the situation or place in the second verse do, however, tie the raising of Avraham's eyes to the appearance of God in the previous verse. We are, therefore, faced with a serious difficulty: Avraham Avinu experiences a revelation of the Divine, and at that very moment he raises his eyes to the crossroads in search of wayfarers! Is this the proper way for Avraham to have conducted himself vis-a-vis God?

 

            Anticipating this question, Rav Yehuda makes a most astonishing comment:

 

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhina, for it is written: "And he said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, etc."  Rabbi Elazar said: Come and observe how the conduct of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like that of mortals. The conduct of mortals [is such that] an inferior person cannot say to a greater man, Wait for me until I come to you; whereas in the case of the Holy One, blessed be He, it is written: "And he said, My Lord, if now I have found, etc." (Shabbat 127a)

 

            Rav Yehuda understands that Avraham, to use modern terminology, put God "on hold." "Wait until I deal with my guests; I will get back to you as soon as I have finished with them" is the way Rav Yehuda interprets Avraham's words, "If now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away."

 

            This interpretation is extremely daring, and much can be said about the importance of hospitality, as it emerges from this passage. But let us try to examine the matter from Avraham's perspective. Avraham is sitting in his tent, hurting from his circumcision, and suddenly he merits a Divine vision. His entire being becomes filled with the invigorating presence of God, which heals all sickness and alleviates all pain. Avraham feels nothing else; he fully surrenders to this sweeping and filling encounter, in which he immerses himself with all his soul and consciousness. This is the way that R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev describes the experience:

 

"And the Lord appeared to him in Elonei Mamre, etc." We must understand: Why does it not say "And the Lord appeared to Avraham"? Why is [Avraham's] name not mentioned? It seems that the blessed Creator pours bounty upon His creatures, but there remains bounty that He has not yet contracted in the worlds. Now, the bounty that has been contracted in the worlds is in the letters. For example, regarding the world of the Serafim, the contraction is in the letters [of the word] Serafim. And similarly with all the worlds. And similarly with the lower world, each person according to his letters. That is, to Avraham [the bounty comes] from the contraction of Avraham, and similarly with each person. Now, a person who serves God, may He be blessed, with devotion, sheds [his] letters and adheres to the bounty that has not yet contracted into letters. Avraham Avinu, may he rest in peace, circumcised himself in old age, and served the Creator, may He be blessed, with devotion. Thus, he shed himself of his letters, because he became attached to the bounty that had not yet been contracted into letters, and he was no longer called by his name at all. This is [the meaning of] "And God appeared to him," that he was not called by his name at all. (Kedushat LeviVayera)

 

            R. Levi Yitzchak notes that Avraham's name is omitted from the opening verse: "And the Lord appeared to him," rather than "And the Lord appeared to Avraham." R. Levi Yitzchak's understanding of this phenomenon fits in well with what was stated above. Avraham's service of God involved communion and total devotion, and rose above human bounds, which find expression in our names that are comprised of letters. Avraham shed the individuality expressed by his name, and conjoined with the Divine profusion that knows no bounds. This is an experience that is above and beyond the natural world, and all of the natural world becomes meaningless next to it. This communion with the infinite is void of words and content. Since there are no longer two beings but only one, it is irrelevant to speak of a message or contents.

 

            It is precisely at this elevated moment, during the climax of Avraham's communion with God, that three "Arabs" come knocking at his door, seeking a moment of shade. Avraham, whose entire being is in the heavenly worlds, asks himself: How can I stop what I am doing? What have I to do with mere mortals? Avraham, whose name had served as a constricting boundary that he succeeded to breach, is forced now to deal now not only with his confining individuality, but also with current, transient, and changing reality.

 

            How great is the trial of one who, while conjoined to the Shekhina, is asked to withdraw from that communion in favor of the transient life of this world!

 

            Yet Avraham stops! Not only does he interrupt what he is doing, but he even redirects his personality, his strengths, and his entire being to that transient life. He runs to the herd, he takes butter, he fetches water for washing feet, and in a single moment Avraham turns from a prophet into an innkeeper. Scripture does not give even the slightest hint that Avraham experienced any difficulty whatsoever in this sharp transition.

 

            Let us now consider the question: Which of the two trials was greater? The trial of hospitality to wayfarers or the trial of the Akeida, where Avraham was asked to demonstrate self-sacrifice demanding total self-effacement before God. 

 

            What are the thoughts of one who breaks up wood to build a fire for the roasting of meat, in comparison to the contemplations of one who breaks up wood to offer his son as a whole-burnt offering?

 

            What are the thoughts of one who sharpens his knife in order to slaughter a sheep to feed his guests when compared to the ruminations of one who sharpens his knife in order to slaughter his son as an offering to God?

 

            What is truly remarkable, when viewed from this perspective, is not that God in His humility forgives Avraham for having asked Him to wait. Nor does it lie in the importance of themitzva of hospitality to wayfarers. But rather it is Avraham's ability to come back down from the heavenly worlds in order to prepare a meal for his guests.

 

            This quality finds even greater expression in Avraham's act of hospitality than in his part in the Akeida, where it would seem that Avraham felt quite "at home." Avraham had been prepared to give up his life in the fiery furnace for the glory of God; he had left his entire culture and everything dear to him solely in order to fulfill God's command. And Avraham in his limitless devotion was also capable of slaughtering his son for the sake of God.

 

            But to cook meat? To spread butter on bread? To wash the feet of wayfarers? And all this when the Shekhina is waiting outside! This requires a different type of strength, different powers, and different capabilities!

 

To the average person the trial to reach communion, to efface oneself before God, to run towards the infinite seems to be the most difficult task. For the truly righteous person, however, the picture is reversed. For him communion is easily achieved; returning to our world is the real test. So writes R. Nachman:

 

He said that for him [= R. Nachman], ratzo, "running toward," is not regarded as service whatsoever, and that the main service and exertion on his part is the aspect of shov,"returning." That is, because the service of God has an aspect of ratzo and shov. This aspect is found in every person, even the lowest of the low. For every person stirs at times to serve Him, may He be blessed, especially at the time of prayer, when his heart sometimes becomes exceedingly excited, and he says certain things with great excitement. This is the aspect of ratzo. Eventually, the stirring and excitement cease, and nothing remains for him but the impressions, and this is the aspect of shov. For most people, the primary service and exertion is to merit the aspect of ratzo," that is, that he should run forward and awaken to His service, etc. For such a person, the shov is easy, this being his nature. For him [= R. Nachman], however, of blessed memory, it is the opposite, because he had already broken and renounced his body entirely. For this reason the ratzo is in his nature, and his main exertion relates to the aspect of shov. For it is truly necessary that there also be a shov as long as he must live, for if not, God forbid, he will be removed before his time. For this reason it is necessary that there be ratzo and shov. (Chayyei Moharan 252)

 

The tension between "welcoming the Shekhina" and "And Avraham ran to the herd" is a tension that exists in varying degrees in every person, each individual according to his level. This is the tension referred to in Chassidic thought as "running toward and returning" (ratzo va-shov). This movement is universal, characterizing every living creature aspiring to draw near to God.

 

The tzadik, asserts R. Nachman based on personal experience, has unexpected difficulty precisely in the area of shov. Communion with God and the readiness to efface oneself in the infinite by way of this communion constitute his natural mode and fixed state. The lives of the patriarchs are models of self-sacrifice and readiness to die for the sake of God's name. In the context of such lives, the Akeida, both from the perspective of Avraham as well as from the perspective of Yitzchak, was almost trivial. Not so Avraham's ceaseless efforts to provide for the this-worldly needs of his guests.

 

The dichotomy in the tension between "And God appeared to him" and "And he looked, and, lo, three men" reflects the intensity of the act required of Avraham in this trial.

 

THE MUNDANE CONVERSATION OF THE TZADIK

 

            This situation of withdrawal from the experience of revelation in order to fulfill the mitzva of offering hospitality to wayfarers is understood in Chassidic thought in the wider sense of the need to withdraw from communion with God and return to this world with all its ills. Thus, writes R. Ya'akov Yosef of Polonneye, disciple of the Ba'al Shem Tov, in the name of his master:

 

And I also heard from my master an explanation of "Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhina" (Shabbat 127a). He raised the objection that hospitality to wayfarers sometimes involves neglect of Torah study or spreading gossip. Nevertheless, hospitality to wayfarers is greater. (Toledot Ya'akov YosefVe-zot ha-Berakha 24)

 

            "Welcoming the presence of the Shekhina" and retreating from it, asserts the Ba'al Shem Tov, is not only a characteristic of Avraham Avinu; it is the lot of each and every individual, who is forced to leave his spiritual setting for the sake of worldly concerns. When a person interrupts his Torah study to welcome guests, he too asks the Shekhina to wait, and he too is forced to offer this intimacy with God on the altar of hospitality. When a person encounters mundane reality and is forced to listen to gossip and slander as part of his living in this world, he takes leave of theShekhina. But nevertheless, he is required to do so as part of the mitzva of hospitality and as part of the mitzva of improving the world.

 

This is the experience of anyone whose movement is "running towards and returning," going back and forth between intimacy with God and immersion in this world. It is, however, more dichotomous for the tzadik in the world of Chassidut, who is forced to be attentive to all the worldly problems brought before him by his followers, while his sole desire is to conjoin with God and the heavenly worlds. The true tzadik finds himself in a constant dilemma. On the one hand, his life's mission is to raise his followers, to elevate them, to welcome them and draw them near to God. On the other hand, the tzadik's sole desire is to cleave to the Holy One, blessed be he, and he is torn between these two extremes.

 

R. Nachman of Breslov has much to say regarding the nature of this difficulty:

 

Regarding the simple conduct of the true tzadik. That is, sometimes a true tzadik is really a simple person, meaning that he conducts himself in simple ways. He reveals no Torah and engages in mundane conversation, and the like. He then has the aspect of a really simple person… In general, it is absolutely impossible to remain attached to Torah and comprehension [of God] without any interruption. A person must be idle for a certain period. During that time that he neglects the Torah, that scholar or thinker has the aspect of a really simple person. This would appear to be very difficult. How can a person detach himself from Torah for even a short time, surely it is our life, etc. Who would want to detach himself from life for even a moment? Even though our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have said (Menachot 99b): "The neglect of the Torah is its fulfillment," even so who would agree to neglect the Torah even if this involves its fulfillment? Even so, it is certainly better to be attached to the Torah, which is life and longevity. Who would agree to detach himself from life for even a moment, especially if he merits to love the Torah, is very diligent about it, and is exceedingly attached to it. And all the more so, if he merits to feel a certain sweetness in the Torah, to propose a novel idea, even some explanation in the Gemara, in Rashi, or in Tosafot. And all the more so again and again, if he is one who comprehendsand especially if he is one who merits the treasury of the king. This level cannot be fathomed by the mind. How then can he agree to detach himself from the Torah for even a short time? (Likutei Moharan Tanina 78)

 

            At the beginning of this teaching, R. Nachman speaks of the tzadik, but in the continuation, he extends what he says to include anyone who studies Torah, and especially someone who through his study merits the feeling of "sweetness." This sweetness is the experience of nearness – the experience of "And God appeared to him." After having experienced this intimacy, it is almost impossible to withdraw from it, especially on one's own initiative.[2]

 

            This dichotomy does not only exacerbate and intensify the gap. This abyss between the level of the tzadik and the place to which he must descend is itself also the solution:

 

To resolve the Or ha-Chayyim's objection, he can say that the Torah intentionally uses an unusual formulation here in order to allude to a profound idea. For sometimes a tzadik sits in a group of people and speaks to them of certain material matters and relates stories that appear to be vain. But in truth that tzadik who is sitting there is attached in his thought to God, and the words that he utters, while to them they appear material and vain, he sees and regards them as holy and spiritual. And similarly regarding all the down-to-earth stories that people relate to him and all the matters that they tell him, he always sees the holy aspects in these utterances. As I heard from my father that the songs that the nations of the world sing are all the aspect of love and fear [of God] spreading down from up above to all the lower levels. This is alluded in the verse, "And the Lord appeared to him in Elonei Mamre (the terebinths of Mamre). Elonei refers to people, as in (Devarim 20:19): "For man is the tree of the field. And Mamre is in the sense of "stubborn and rebellious (more)." That is, even those people who rebel against God with their words, and are wicked, nevertheless, "And He appeared to him." This refers specifically to the tzadik, who always cleaves to God – he always see God in these matters. And it is just "to him" and not to them, for he is one. "As he sat" – that is, even though he is sitting with them, like one of them, nevertheless, he is by himself and in secret in the world of thought. (Degel Machane Efrayim,[3] Vayera)

 

            R. Efrayim teaches us that when the tzadik descends to a lower level, he does not really go down. The tzadik continues to cleave to the Shekhina, and when he speaks of and listens to mundane matters, he lifts and elevates them.

 

            It must be emphasized that according to the Chassidic description of the mundane talk of a tzadik, the tzadik need not "keep his distance" from the worldly matters he discusses. In such a situation, the tzadik is not talking words of Torah; he is not turning the "mundane" into the "holy." If the talk is about a sick cow or a car that broke down, this is what the tzadik is talking about, and not the heavenly worlds concealed behind them. We are not dealing with an alienated attitude toward this-worldly matters. The Torah does not report the words of Torah that Avraham shared with his guests while they ate the meat, nor is mention even made of a blessing directed toward God. The tzadik speaks of worldly matters. He devotes himself with all his soul to the preparation of the meat. He does not remain alienated from it, for were he to do so, were he to leave himself outside this worldly experience, he would be entirely incapable of redeeming and elevating it.

 

            Avraham concentrates on preparing, cooking, and seasoning the meat. Thus writes R. Nachman:

 

For this reason, the true tzadikim must engage in mundane conversation with the masses, and clothe them in Torah, and connect them with these words from the place where they are, for they are not far from these words and stories that the tzadik relates to them. In this way he connects them and raises them to God, may He be blessed. This is the aspect of "conversing (nose ve-noten) in the words of God," that is, he speaks with each person according to where he is at, and he carries (nose) those words, and gives (noten) them to God, for he connects them to their roots, to the aspect of the heavenly wisdom. Thus, the true tzadik connects earthly wisdom to heavenly wisdom (Likutei Moharan Tanina 91).

 

            The tzadik's ability to engage in mundane conversation with his followers is the ability to build a connection between the worlds, which is the primary function of the tzadik, foundation of the world.

 

            To the degree that the tzadik is able to descend more deeply and that the tzadik's feet are placed in the depths of the earth, so the connection between heaven – where the tzadik's head is found – and earth will strengthen, and the worlds and their inhabitants will continue to be elevated.

 


"And he raised his eyes and looked, and, lo"



 



            It would appear that this raising of mundane words to the heavenly worlds is accomplished in two ways. First, it is accomplished by way of that reality itself. The process is simpler in the case where the chasid converses with the tzadik on mundane matters. Even if thetzadik utters not a word of holiness to the chasid, and his entire attention is given over to the material reality raised by the chasid, the very fact that the tzadik is joined at all times to theShekhina, causes, even unconsciously, the material reality under discussion to pass in thechasid's consciousness from the mundane world to the world of holiness.



 



            From the moment that the sick cow, the failing business, the foul relationship between husband and wife turn into "the conversation of tzadikim," they become clothed, in the words of R. Nachman, in garments of Torah and holiness. From that moment, the whole world becomes part of the Divine service toward which the eyes of the tzadik are always raised.[4]



 



            It seems, however, that the process depends not only upon the reality towards which thetzadik turns, but also upon his perspective. In this respect, it is true even when the tzadik turns to the inanimate world that lacks the human consciousness that absorbs the spiritual state of thetzadik. Let us return to Avraham Avinu.


 

            At the very beginning of this lecture, we showed how the Divine revelation terminated when the three men knocked on Avraham's door. This formulation, however, is imprecise, for according to Scripture's description, the three guests enter the arena as a consequence of Avraham's raising his eyes. It stands to reason that Avraham's strength lies in the raising of his eyes:

 

            Here, when Avraham experiences the revelation of the Shekhina, it says: "And he raised his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him."

 

            In the Akeida story, when Avraham goes off with Yitzchak and his young men, it says: "And Avraham raised his eyes, and saw the place afar off" (Bereishit 22:4).

 

            At the end of the Akeida story, when the angel restrains Avraham's hand from waving the knife over his son Yitzchak, it says: "And Avraham raised his eyes, and looked and behold behind him a ram" (v. 13).

 

            Avraham's greatness, so then it would appear, does not begin with his ability to interrupt the experience of revelation in order to feed the three angels, but rather with his amazing ability to lift up his eyes while still engaged in that experience and reveal the three guests on his own. This requires that he be attentive and sensitive to the world even when he is in a state of spiritual elation.

 

            Avraham never cut himself off from the real world. Even when he elevated himself to staggering heights, his feet and his attention never abandoned this world. Avraham was not afraid that his experience of communion would in any way be diminished by his continuing to extend a listening ear to the world that was crying out for help.[5] This is the astonishing ability that allowed Avraham to lift up his eyes and see the three men seeking a place to rest.[6]

 

            It seems, however, that this ability to see is even more profound than the way we have thus far described it. Thus writes R. Efrayim of Sudylkow:

 

"And he lifted his eyes and saw." In the sense of "Know what is above you" (Avot 2:1). This is what Scripture states: "And he lifted," a term of raising. That is, he saw with his eyes, and contemplated that in everything there is fear and love [of God] spreading down from up above, their root being up above, as stated. Understand this. (Degel Machane Efrayim,Vayera)

 

            This raising of eyes, according to the author of the Degel Machane Efrayim, is not only the physical act of lifting the eyes upward. Rather, it involves the deep and inner understanding how the experience of "And the Lord appeared to him" spreads, in the words of R. Efrayim, from heaven to earth, and becomes clothed in the form of three men and the mitzva of welcoming guests.

 

            In the background of all that we have said thus far lies the midrash that describes how Avraham abandoned the Shekhina for a short time in order to welcome his guests. We can now say, based on the words of R. Efrayim, that Avraham never ceased standing before the Shekhina.Avraham Avinu's unique lifting of his eyes is the ability to remain joined to the infinite even when coming down to earthly reality. This ability depends upon the inner understanding that R. Efrayim attributes to Avraham in the raising of his eyes, his understanding how the infinite becomes embodied in a this-worldly situation.

 

            In precisely the same fashion, Avraham succeeds to raise his eyes and see the ram caught in the thicket by its horns. How different is the offering of a son from the offering of a ram – an act that every man in Israel merits to perform when the Temple stands. What a great let-down for the tzadik, who a moment before was ready to sacrifice that which was most dear to him for the sake of His blessed Name, and now he offers an animal instead. How can one compare the communion with God growing out of the readiness to sacrifice a son, to the attachment growing out of the sacrifice of a ram?

 

Avraham Avinu saw, however, how the offering of a son – an act that requires that a person stand before the infinite totally cut off from this world, from the love and feelings of a father toward his son, and from the value of life - can clothe itself in the offering of a ram.

 

Just as Avraham remained in the state of "And the Lord appeared to him," even when he "ran to the herd," so too Avraham remained in the state of "and he took the knife to slay his son," even when "he took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in place of his son."

 

The very same tears of self-sacrifice that poured from his eyes when he held the knife to slaughter his son, also poured from them when the ram's throat lay before him.

 

R. Yisrael Ba'al Shem Tov was himself a shochet. It is related that following his death, another shochet came to take his place. When that shochet sharpened his knife and immersed it in water to cool it down, a non-Jew who was standing there shook his head, saying: "This is not the way to do it." Obviously, the shochet did not respond, for what does a non-Jew know about the laws of shechita? But after the non-Jew stood his own several times, the shochet asked him to explain himself.  The non-Jew answered: "This is not the way to do it! R. Yisrael was accustomed to cool down the sharpened knife with his tears!"

 

FOOTNOTES:

 

[1] The standard biblical commentators who interpret Scripture according to the plain sense of the text have also tried to clarify the relationship between the first verse and the verses that follow. The Ramban cites the position of the Rambam in his Guide of the Perplexed that the opening verse serves as a heading for the rest of the passage. In essence, then, we are dealing with a vision announced by the first verse, the content of that vision being the story of the three angels. In this way, all the aforementioned difficulties are resolved. The Ramban rejects this approach which interprets all the stories of Divine revelation as abstract, spiritual visions. He raises an objection from the account of Ya'akov's struggle with the angel: If we are dealing with a spiritual vision and not a real, physical encounter, why does Ya'akov emerge from the vision with a limp?

            The Rashbam, in his unique and revolutionary way, adopts an approach similar to that of the Rambam. He sees the opening verse as a general statement, the details of which are spelled out in the account of the angels. According to him, however, we are dealing with a real encounter, the title of which is God's revelation to Avraham. The manner in which God reveals Himself to Avraham, argues the Rashbam, is by way of the appearance of the three angels in human form. The entire passage is explained according to this principle. The three angels standing before Avraham constitute God's appearance to Avraham. The difficulties that we have raised are answered by this interpretation as well.

 

[2] R. Nachman's personal biography tells us much about such attempts. His disciple, R. Natan, relates the following story: "I heard that once a certain person from our circle greatly complained to him [=R. Nachman] about his lack of a livelihood. Our master of blessed memory said to him: 'I don't understand how you have the heart to bother me with the vanities of this world'" (Chayyei Moharan 240). And in contrast, later in that book: "But the extent of the great wisdom, holiness, and comprehension that our master of blessed memory had in this matter, regarding the mundane conversation, etc, was exceedingly immense and elevated… For all types of stories in the world, etc., that people relate, they all came before him… And he always wanted that people should report to him news of the world, because he was able to raise and perform a very awesome and hidden service with all the stories in the world" (ibid. 243).

 

[3] R. Moseh Chayyim Efrayim, av bet din of Sudylkow (1748-1800), grandson of the Ba'al Shem Tov, son of Edel and R. Yechiel Ashkenazi. He grew up in close proximity to his grandfather, who testified to his genius. He also studied with the maggid of Medzibezh and with R. Ya'akov Yosef of Poloneyye. His book, Degel Machane Efrayim, serves as a primary source for the teachings of the Besht.

 

[4] This may find expression even in the tzadik's body language, as R. Natan testifies about R. Nachman when he speaks of the mundane conversations that he had with his followers: "It was always his way, even when he would engage in mundane conversation, that his foot and most of his body would shake, and his foot would greatly tremble… Whoever hasn't seen the fear [of God] that was always on his face, never saw the fear [of God]" (Chayyei Moharan 243).

 

[5] R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik criticizes the various mystic religions that direct all of man's aspirations to spiritual communion, rather than to improving the world. He sees such an approach as morally flawed: "They have been so intoxicated by their dreams of an exalted supernal existence that they have failed to hear the cries of 'them that dwell in houses of clay' (Job 4:19), the sighs of orphans, the groans of the destitute. Had they not desired to unite with infinity and to merge with transcendence, then they might have been able to do something to aid the widow and orphan, to save the oppressed from the hand of the oppressor. There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one's attention from this world" (Halakhic Man, p. 41). 

 

[6] A famous story, one that my revered teacher HaRav Yehuda Amital is in the habit of relating to incoming students at the Yeshiva, tells of the Admor ha-Zaken of Chabad, R. Shneur Zalman of Lyady, and his son, the middle Admor, who were deep in Torah study, the Admor ha-Zaken in the outer room, his son in the inner room, and the latter's infant in the outer room on the other side. During the course of their learning, the baby began to cry, and his father, the middle Admor, who was sitting in the adjoining room did not hear the bawling child. The grandfather, the Admor ha-Zaken, got up, walked past his son, and went into his grandson's room to calm him down. On the way back to his room, he stopped and said to his son: "One who studies Torah and fails to hear a crying child – his Torah is flawed."

 

(Translated by David Strauss)