Rabbi Bernie Fox
The Three Men who Visited Avraham
And Hashem appeared to him at Elonai Mamrai and he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day.† And he lifted his eyes and there were three men standing before him.† And he ran towards them from the opening of his tent and he bowed to the ground.† (Beresheit 18:1-2)
The opening passages of Parshat VaYerah are the subject of an intense debate among the commentaries.† The first passage of the parasha relates that Hashem appears to Avraham.† However, the Torah does not explain the message that Hashem imparts to Avraham or the purpose of this prophecy.† Instead, the Torah immediately tells us that Avraham observes three travelers and invites them into his home.† The Torah then explains that one of these travelers reveals to Avraham and Sarah that in the coming months she will give birth to Yitzchak.† The Torah then describes the departure of the travelers towards Sedom.†
The Torah relates that after the departure of these travelers, Hashem does enter into an extensive conversation with Avraham. He tells him of the approaching destruction of Sedom and its surroundings.† The Torah describes Avrahamís intercession on behalf of the citizens of Sedom and Hashemís acquiescence to Avrahamís request that Sedom be spared if ten righteous individuals can be found among its residents.
Next, the Torah resumes describing the activities of the travelers who visited Avraham.† They are now described as two melachim Ė a term that can be translated as messengers or angels.† The Torah describes their arrival to Sedom and their encounter with Lote Ė Avrahamís nephew.† Lote insists on hosting the melachim.† The citizens of Sedom demand that Lote turn over to them his guests.† He refuses.† The melachim drive off the hostile mob.† They destroy Sedom and its environs, saving Lote and his daughters.†
The account ends with a description of Avraham looking upon the devastation of Sedom and reiterates that Hashem destroyed Sedom, and on Avrahamís behalf, Lote was spared.†
Many commentaries note that although the parasha begins with Hashem appearing to Avraham, no account is provided of the details of this prophetic event.† Instead, the Torah ends or interrupts its description of Avrahamís prophecy and begins a new narrative Ė the description of the visit of the three travelers to Avraham.† What was the prophecy that is suggested by the opening passage and why does the Torah not reveal its content?
Maimonides suggests that in fact the Torah does provide a detailed description of the prophecy received by Avraham.† The narrative describing three travelers that appeared before Avraham is not an account of an actual event.† It is a description of the prophetic vision that Avraham received.† These three travelers did not actually come to Avrahamís home and speak with him and Sarah.† Instead, they appeared in the prophetic vision introduced by the first passage of the parasha.††
Nachmanides strongly opposes this position.† He asks a number of incisive questions on Maimonidesí interpretation of the passages.† However, one question stands out as the most compelling criticism of Maimonidesí position.† According to Maimonides, the travelers who visited Avraham were not actual material beings existing in and interacting with the material world.† In Maimonidesí opinion, these travelers existed in Avrahamís mind.† Yet, the Torah describes these travelers or angels as interacting with the world around them.† These same travelers arrive in Sedom and accept Loteís hospitality.† They enter into battle with the mob that attacks his home and they rescue Lote and his daughters from the devastation that they bring upon the city.† If these men or angels existed only as a vision in the mind of Avraham, how did they emerge from this vision and interact with and participate in actual events in the material world?
And Avraham arose early in the morning to the place at which he stood before Hashem.† And he looked upon Sedom, Amorrah, and the entire Land of the Plain.† And he saw smoke rising from the earth like the smoke of a furnace.† And it occurred that when Hashem destroyed the Cities of the Plain, G-d remembered Avraham.† And He sent forth Lote from the upheaval, when he devastated the cities among which Lote dwelled.
Don Yitzchak Abravanel deals extensively with Nachmanidesí objection.† In order to fully appreciate his response to Nachmanides, the above passages must be considered.† These passages are among the most difficult in the narrative.† They appear at its end.† The Torah has completed its account of the destruction of Sedom and the rescue of Lote.† It then describes Avraham rising in the morning and returning to the place of his prophecy. He looks upon Sedom and observes the devastation that has befallen the city.† Then, the Torah again relates that Hashem destroyed Sedom and saved Lote because of His relationship with Avraham.† What is the message of these passages?† Why does the Torah tell us that Avraham returned to the place of his prophecy and observed the fate of Sedom?† Even more odd is the Torahís reiteration of Sedomís demise and Loteís rescue.† This seems completely superfluous!
Abravanel explains that these passages are fundamental to understanding the preceding narrative.† According to Abravanel, the entire narrative describing the experiences of the travelers to Sedom, their interaction with its citizens and Lote, the destruction of Sedom, and the rescue of Lote was all part of Avrahamís vision.† Abravanel explains that Nachmanides is mistaken in assuming that these travelers actually interacted with the people of Sedom or with Lote.† Avraham experienced a prophecy that the Torah describes in exhaustive detail and all of these interactions are part of this prophetic vision.† These details are not events that actually occurred in the material world.
Now, the meaning and significance of the above passages emerges.† Avraham saw in his prophetic vision the destruction of Sedom and the rescue of his nephew.† He arises in the morning and looks out upon Sedom. He observes the reality of the devastation that he had seen in his vision.† Then, the Torah explains that events Avraham observed in his vision represented a parallel set of events in the real world.† In the material world, Sedom had been destroyed and Lote saved.† This final passage is not at all superfluous.† It is the key to understanding all that has preceded it.† It reveals that the preceding narrative was a vision and that that vision reflected events that unfolded in the material world.†
The task remains to understand the meaning of Avrahamís vision regarding Sedom.† This part of the vision begins with Hashem revealing to Avraham His plan to destroy Sedom and Avrahamís intervention.† Avrahamís intercession ends with an agreement that Sedom will be spared if ten righteous individuals can be found among its citizens.† In the next part of the vision, Avraham observes the arrival of the travelers in Sedom, their interaction with the people of the city and with Lote.† He is seeing Ė in his vision Ė the testing of the people of Sedom.† Hashem is examining the citizens of Sedom and determining whether there are Ė in fact ó ten righteous among its citizens.† In his vision, the citizens mass against Lote and his guests.† The entire citizenry joins in the attack.† No one protests the mindless violence of the mob and no one demurs.† There are not ten righteous individuals in the city.† But Avrahamís vision is not limited to observing the testing of Sedom.† He also observes his own nephew, Lote, put to a terrible test.† Lote responded well enough to be saved from the fate of his fellows.
How closely did this vision characterize the events that actually unfolded in Sedom?† We cannot know.† The objective is not to communicate exactly how the people of Sedom were tested and how Lote proved his worthiness.† Instead, the intent was to reveal to Avraham the outcome of the agreement he negotiated with Hashem.† Somehow, the people of Sedom were tested.† Ten righteous individuals did not reveal themselves but those few righteous people who lived in Sedom† Ė Lote and his daughters Ėwere spared.