Rabbi Bernie Fox

Hashem’s Agents and their Various Missions

And he lifted his eyes and he saw that three men were standing before him.  And he saw and he ran from the opening of his tent to greet them. And he bowed towards the ground.  (Beresheit 18:2)

Each malach has a single task

Hashem sends three messengers to Avraham.  Rashi refers to these messengers as malachim – angels.  He explains that an individual malach – angel – can only have a single mission.  Each of the malachim that visited with Avraham had a unique assignment.  The angel Michael came with the tidings that Sarah will have a son – Yitzchak.  Raphael came to heal Avraham and aid his recovery from his circumcision.  Gavriel was assigned the task of destroying Sedom.  

After Michael foretold the birth of Yitzchak, he left Avraham and the others.  His job was done.  The remaining two messengers proceeded to Sedom. Gavriel would now destroy Sedom.  Raphael would rescue Lote.

Raphael’s two tasks express a single theme

Rashi acknowledges that Raphael’s two responsibilities present a problem.  An individual angel can only be assigned a single mission.  Raphael seems to have had two tasks.  His first assignment was to heal Avraham.  Having completed that assignment, he then executed a second responsibility.  He saved Lote.

Rashi responds that the assignment of two tasks to Raphael does not violate the principle that only a single task may be assigned to an individual angel.  Both of Raphael’s tasks involved salvation.  Because of this common feature, a single angel could perform both tasks.

Rashi’s comments present two problems.  First, he never seems to answer his question.  He concludes that one angel did perform two tasks.  Rashi argues that because these two tasks were related, the question is somehow answered. However, the relationship seems rather artificial.  Rashi describes both of Raphael’s missions as acts of salvation.  The rescue of Lote was a true act of salvation.  However, the healing of Avraham was an act of salvation in only a figurative sense.  Avraham was saved from additional physical pain.

Second, why does Rashi insist that the dual responsibility fell to Raphael?  There is another candidate for two tasks.  Michael foretold Yitzchak’s birth.  Why could Michael not be assigned the task of saving Lote?  It seems that these two responsibilities could also be characterized under the general heading of salvation.  We know that Avraham was deeply concerned with having children.  Michael relieved Avraham of this anxiety.  This is also a form of salvation.

An alternative version of the angels’ missions

Rashi’s comments are based upon the Midrash Rabba (50:2).  However, this same incident is discussed in the Talmud.  In the Talmud’s discussion, Raphael is assigned only the single task of healing Avraham.  Indeed, it is Michael who has two tasks.  He foretells the birth of Yitzchak and he saved Lote.  In other words, the very alternative that the Midrash ignores is accepted by the Talmud.  Both sources agree that a single angel can have but one assignment. Yet, each insists on its own version of how the assignments were distributed.  The table below summarizes the dispute between the Midrash and the Talmud.





Foretelling Yitzchak’s birth



Healing Avraham



Destruction of Sedom



Saving of Lote




Rashi’s understanding of the Torah’s account of the angels

In order to answer these questions, we must understand Rashi’s comments at a deeper level.  We need to explain the Rashi’s basic principle: an individual angel can have only a single responsibility.

It seems that Rashi maintains that each angel or messenger represents a different theme within Divine providence.  Each expresses a unique objective.  The various themes are identified by associating each with a different messenger.  In other words, the incidents described in the opening of the parasha – the healing of Avraham, the birth of Yitzchak – foretold in the opening passages, the destruction of Sedom, and the rescue of Lote are all expressions of Divine providence.  According to Rashi, through its discussion of these events in relation to the angels, the Torah is revealing the considerations or factors that underlay this series of providential events.  The Torah is explaining why each of these events occurred.  

This understanding of Rashi’s principle suggests an approach to answering our questions.  Apparently, Rashi maintains that the healing of Avraham and the saving of Lote are manifestations of a single theme or consideration within providence.  In order to understand the relationship between these two tasks, we must identify the themes represented by the angels.

One theme is easy to identify.  Providence is sometimes an expression of Divine justice.  This theme is represented by Gavriel – the malach that destroyed Sedom.  The other two themes are more difficult to differentiate.  The remaining two angels – Michael and Raphael – seem to have had similar objectives.  They are expressions of Hashem’s kindness to Avraham.  Raphael healed Avraham.  Michael foretold Yitzchak’s birth.  What are the different themes these malachim represent?

Rashi explains earlier that the world was created with a specific objective.  Hashem created a world that would embody and give expression to the Torah.  Avraham was chosen to be the progenitor of the nation that would receive the Torah.  He served as the instrument for the fulfillment of the Creator’s plan.  Granting a child to Avraham, was an expression of the Divine plan to create a sacred nation.  We can now identify the theme represented by Michael – the angel that foretold Yitzchak’s birth.  Michael was an expression of the Divine design to create of world embodying Torah.

The theme represented by Raphael – the angel that healed Avraham – can now be distinguished.  This malach represents the providence that Hashem grants the righteous.  The healing of Avraham was not an expression of Divine justice.  It was not part of Hashem’s design for His world.  This healing was simply a kindness performed for the righteous.

It is now clear that Raphael, who healed Avraham, was the appropriate angel to save Lote.  Lote’s salvation was also an act of kindness performed on behalf of Avraham.  It is appropriate that the healing angel should perform this task.  He represents the theme of Hashem’s providence over the righteous.

In other words, Rashi maintains that these three angels represent three themes in providence.  They can be summarized as follows:

Hashem treats humanity with justice (Gavriel).  

Hashem has a plan and design for humanity (Michael).

Hashem’s providence protects and sustains his righteous (Raphael).

These themes are all expressions of Hashem’s relationship with humanity.  He judges; He has a plan and design for humankind; His providence envelopes His righteous.

The Talmud’s understanding of the melachim’s missions

However, as noted, the Talmud disagrees with Rashi and the Midrash’s assignment of two tasks to Raphael. According to the Talmud, it was Michael who performed two assignments.  He foretold Yitzchak’s birth and he rescued Lote.  What shared characteristic underlies the assignment of these very different tasks to Michael?

Apparently, the Talmud is suggesting an alternative interpretation of Michael’s and Raphael’s missions.  In this interpretation, the rescue of Lote is more akin to Michael’s assignment than it is to Raphael’s.  What is this interpretation?

And Hashem said to Avraham: Why does Sarah laugh saying “Will I truly give birth and I am aged”?  Is anything too great for Hashem.  At the appointed time I will return to you and Sarah will have a son.  (Beresheit 18:13-14)

The significance and meaning of the miracle of Yitzchak’s birth

As the Torah explains, Sarah was barren for most of her life.  In extreme old age, her youth returned; she achieved fertility, and give birth to Yitzchak. It seems that for some reason, it was not Hashem’s will for Sarah to conceive earlier.  What does this reveal?  Sarah was barren.  Conception would have required a miraculous intervention even at an earlier age.  However, a two-fold miracle took place when Sarah conceived Yitzchak in her old age.  First, she achieved fertility.  Second, she did this during the time in her life in which this should have been biologically impossible.  In other words, it was Hashem’s design that Yitzchak’s birth should be a clear and evident miracle.  Why was this miraculous birth necessary?  How would have Hashem’s plan been compromised were Yitzchak born early in Sarah’s life – before it became apparent she was barren?

Apparently, it was essential that Yitzchak’s birth be understood as an act of providence resulting from Avraham’s righteousness.  In other word’s Yitzchak’s birth testified to the relationship between Hashem and Avraham.  When Micahel told Avraham and Sarah that in a year Yitzchak would be born, he was not merely revealing that they would experience the joy of having a son.  He was communicating to them that Hashem would demonstrate through this birth His special relationship with Avraham.  

However, one approaching event threatened to contradict and undermine this demonstration.  Sedom was to be destroyed.  Avraham’s nephew Lote – whom Avraham had previously rescued – lived in Sedom.  Lote’s death among the people of Sedom would suggest that Avraham was not completely protected by Hashem’s providence or that this providence has limits.  Therefore, in order for Yitzchak’s birth to communicate an unequivocal and undeniable message, Lote had to be rescued.  As Michael was the messenger who foretold Yitzchak’s birth, the task of saving Lote was assigned to him.

The Midrash cited by Rashi and the Talmud have different perspectives of the missions of Michael and Raphael.  Raphael symbolizes Hashem’s special relationship with Avraham.  This relationship is expressed through Avraham’s rapid recovery from milah and the rescue of his nephew.  Michael symbolizes the Divine plan for humanity. Yitzchak’s birth was a crucial element in the unfolding of this design.

The Talmud regards the missions of Michael and Raphael as more closely related.  Both symbolize Hashem’s relationship with Avraham.  However, Raphael represents the personal and private element of that relationship.  Michael symbolizes the demonstration of that relationship to humanity through overt miracles and wonders.  Yitzchak’s birth was an example of the wonders that result from the providence of the omnipotent Creator.  The rescue of Lote was a necessary element of Michael’s mission.  Without this rescue, the message communicated by Yitzchak’s birth would be compromised and undermined.  


Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 18:2.

Mesechet Baba Metziah 86b

Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 2:1.