“What can we say in Your Presence, Lord Our God… all the heroes are as nothing before you… The wise as if they were without knowledge… most of their doings are worthless… all is vanity.” (Translation: Koren Daily Prayer Book, 36-37.)
“He [God] joins man and shares in his covenantal existence… The element of togetherness of God and man is indispensable for the covenantal community… the very validity of the covenant rests upon free negotiation, mutual assumption of duties and full recognition of the equal rights of both parties…” Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1991) The Lonely Man of Faith, 44.
VaYera, And the Lord appeared. It was a hot day. Abraham was sitting outside his tent. He looked up. And, “behold, three men were standing beside him,” They had come out of nowhere. Abraham, as soon as he saw them, ran from the entrance of his tent to greet them. But not just greet them. He bowed to the ground before them. And he beseeched them: “My Lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.” (18:3) You can rest, bathe your feet and quench your thirst. Relax as my guests and have a bite to eat. “I am your servant and you have come by.”
Why does it say that the Lord appeared? That is singular. Three men appeared. “My Lords,” Abraham called them. Did Abraham think that one of these was God? Or did he, as the Plaut footnote states, believe that all three were messengers sent by God, that they were “apparitions of the Divine.” Whoever they were, how and why did Abraham recognize them to be such? And why did he abase himself before them? Why did he promise them a bite to eat but then order Sarah, his wife, to prepare a feast for them with fresh cakes and a freshly slaughtered lamb which was cooked in milk?
The latter was directly contrary to that which was subsequently prohibited. (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Deuteronomy 14:21). “Do not cook a kid in its mother’s milk.” When I was a guest of the Masai in the Serengeti Plain in 1973, I was offered a mixture of blood drained from the cow’s neck and milk from the same cow. I learned that they had the same prohibition against cooking a calf in its mother’s milk as the Torah had taught. Why, I asked. I am not sure that I recall the answer correctly. In fact, I remember different explanations that sounded to me similar to the far-out rationales my mother told me for not drinking milk with meat or the interpretations I learned in my first year anthropology course at university.
- It was unhealthy; you will get sick and have diarrhea. (When I did so after I turned sixteen, I did not like the taste of them together, but I did not get sick.)
- Milk is like your mother; cooking meat in milk and eating the combination is to assault and insult your mother.
- Meat is like your father; cooking meat in milk is the emasculation of your father.
Why then did Abraham offer his three guests meat cooked in milk when herders and shepherds forbad such a practice? Abraham bowed before them, but then offered them food which was either unhealthy, debased mothers or could contribute to making them eunuchs or a combination of all three? What is going on?
Recall what just happened to Abraham. He was reborn at the age of ninety-nine as a new man when he, and his son Ishmael, were circumcised. God made a covenant with him and promised him another child by his wife Sarai, now renamed Sarah. At which promise, Abraham rolled on the ground and broke into laughter. In the story that followed, was Abraham not resting in front of his tent recovering from the pain of a circumcision at the age of ninety-nine?
Perhaps Abraham had an experience of Dream Reality Confusion (DRC). I know it is a rare experience. But I have had it. You cannot distinguish reality from a dream. You experience what you later learn must have been a dream as if it was totally real. It could be a byproduct of my Sleep Phase Disorder (akin to narcolepsy). However, the physiological correlation does not explain the meaning or the significance. If Abraham had an experience of DRC, why was it an apparition of three men? Every previous time, God had appeared alone as when he first called him. (12:1-3) and when he and Lot parted ways and parted ways of life. (13:14-17) God appeared when he entered into a covenant with Abraham and reaffirmed that covenant.
So why the two witnesses? Because a covenant to be valid had to have at least two witnesses. Promises, covenants and contracts precede even the law. And the law would consecrate the need for two witnesses, even when Godis a party to a contract.
Why did Abraham abase himself before them? Why did he wait on them as he served them the food? Why did he believe that the Lord had appeared before him and why did he offer these three men a feast and the specific feast that he did? Did his very recent painful operation contribute to this DRC? The entire episode had a message. Serve your children. That is how you serve God. Penance is not required. The penalty and pain had already been imprinted on Abraham’s flesh.
Sarah standing just inside the entrance of the tent overheard one of the visitors promising to return in a year when she was ready to give birth to a son. On hearing such a promise, like her husband, she laughed, but to herself. And she did not roll on the ground in thinking that such a promise was but a load of malarkey. Never mind having a son. Since she was so old, why would Abraham even want to have sex with her?
Then the confrontation took place. The Lord asked why Sarah laughed. After all, I am the Lord and can perform wonders. You, Sarah, shall have a son. Then Sarah, like Eve when she was caught out in thee Garden of Eden, lied, then said, “I did not laugh.” God replied, “You did laugh.”
What a dream sequence! Even more extraordinary, what a dream experience to be taken as if it were totally real, as if it actually happened! But it must have been a dream. It must have been an apparition. After all, God appeared in the flesh. Not only that, He ate. And it had to be God because he reiterated the promise he made when Abraham agreed to his and his son, Ishmael’s, circumcision. Further, just as Abraham had laughed, Sarah did as well. But quietly. To herself. But God knew that she had laughed even though she lied and denied it.
Look where this event took place – “by the terebinths of Mamre,” beside an ancient cultic shrine in Hebron focused on a holy tree that had grown on that spot since time immemorial. Was this the Tree of Life that had been at the centre of the Garden of Eden?
The portal for explaining this DRC must go through understanding circumcision. It is an imprint on the flesh of a Hebrew boy when he is only eight days old to recall the covenant God made with both the Hebrews and the descendants of Ishmael. And the father performs the circumcision even when he uses a proxy. And no matter how much wine is soaked into the wad of cloth stuffed in your mouth as an infant to suck, it hurts like hell. You cry and the cry pierces the heart of your mother hiding on the stairs of your house because she cannot stand to see such pain inflicted on her newborn infant.
What father would do such a thing? What father would passively obey an order by God to sacrifice his son? But then there is an entirely different line of questioning. Isaac was a grown man by then. Why would he go along with such an outrageous instruction? Because it meant hearing the other shoe drop. After all, if his own father whom he knew loved him with all his heart and all his mind, if his own father who gave birth to a new value set for a civilization that parents live for their progeny rather than children being birthed to care for their parents, if that father whom you trusted absolutely could inflict such pain when you were a helpless infant, then you had to learn the lesson that if he could hurt you, anyone could. You had to learn to be wary. You had to learn that trust must be boundaried by mistrust, that trust could never be and must never be total. That is why you need contracts. That is why you need covenants. That is why you need witnesses.
God appeared before your tent pitched in front of the Tree of Life. He was accompanied by two others. He was not actually God but an apparition of God. And you did not have to mortify your flesh, except to be circumcised when you are older and when it was most painful. Instead of grace being visited upon the being of Abraham, a covenant is, one between Abraham and God to be passed on through his sons and imprinted in his son’s flesh through the act of circumcision so that it would be aa memory for all time. Abraham did not have to prove his faith first. Rather, the action was a condition of the possibility of his having any faith in the first place. Abraham went from supplicant to becoming a partner, but never a penitent.
A Dark Night of the Senses had already taken place for Abraham. It would also be experienced by his infant son born against all natural law from the womb of his very elderly wife. By that ritual, Abraham was not sanctified; the covenant was. A new nation would be the result, new in the most important way in which nations are new. Further, the communication from God was not an interior experience, the vision of what happened did not take place in a dream. It happened at high noon in the bright sun.
Just as Abraham had not been ecstatic on hearing the promise made to him – he had rolled with laughter on the ground – so too Sarah was not ecstatic but she too distrusted what she had overheard and laughed inside. But God knew. God knew that she had laughed. God could read her thoughts. This was a Dark Night of the Flesh rather than of the Spirit, the establishment of an intimate connection with God that had nothing to do with purification this time but had been sanctified by the emasculation of the male, by the feminization of the male.
Just as God would become an empathetic being and not just an individual full of wrath and harsh judgement, so would the spirit of this new nation be made flesh through male circumcision. Tradition would be in service to the future and not just preservation of the past. Actions would not be dictated by shaming but by a contract between humans and God. Man might begin as a supplicant, but his destiny was to become a partner. It was an integral part of the deal.
The fact that God and Abraham had become partners was evidenced by the story of Lot and Sodom that followed. After the feast, the two witnesses departed for Sodom. God thought to himself, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” (18:17) He decided not to hide his intentions. After all, Abraham was now His partner in creating a new set of values for a new nation. First, God’s two witnesses had to go to Sodom and Gomorrah to confirm whether the people living there had committed the outrages that they reputedly had done.
Abraham then proved he was a partner and not just a supplicant. He argued with God. You can’t kill everyone. There may be fifty good men. The collateral damage will be too great of fifty innocents are killed to do away with the bad guys. Okay, God replied, if my guys find fifty innocents, I will save the whole place to honour our partnership now built on empathy and not just harsh judgment. Abraham asked, what if there are five less than fifty? Would you wipe all of them out or if forty-five innocents were killed.
“No, I won’t.”
“What if there are forty?’
“Then I will not wipe out the cities.”
“And if thirty-five.”
“No, not even if there are thirty-five.”
“Ok. Thirty it is.”
“What about twenty?”
“Ok. Ok. Enough already. Not if there are twenty.”
“And if even ten?”
“That’s it. I will hold back if there are at least ten.”
But there were not ten. Only a xenophobic mob. God’s two agents offered to save Lot and his whole family. But his married daughters and sons-in-laws would not flee with him. Only his two virgin daughters. The remnant of Lot’s family ended up taking refuge in the small town of Zoar. Sodom and Gomorrah were reduced to ashes.
But Lot had been saved at great cost. His married daughters and grandchildren had died in the conflagration. His wife had turned to a pillar of salt for not obeying the agents’ instruction not to look back on the horrific destruction. And his two virgin daughters got him drunk and slept with their father on successive nights. Out of their progeny would come the Moabite and Ammonite nations.
Why had Abraham been treated so differently from Lot. Lot had abased himself before his visitors and offered them food and shelter as well. But he did not feed them lamb cooked in its mother’s milk. He did not give them meat cooked in such a way that their militancy would be assuaged. Further, Lot bargained to save his own life and the lives of his family. Abraham bargained to save the lives of the innocent.
Abraham had proven that he had become a true partner of God.
 The emphasis as well as the origin of both quotes can be found in Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s commentary.