Genesis 18:1 – 18:16

18:1 “Hashem appeared to him..” – Rav Chama (Beva Metzia 86b) taught that it was the third day after Abraham’s circumcision (the third day after an operation being the most painful for adults (see 34:25); and God came and inquired after his welfare (Rashi).

The above reason for God’s visit is suggested by the fact that nowhere else in Scripture do we find God appearing without a direct communication immediately following. Since no other reason is given for God’s appearance to Abraham, and since it is our verse that is traditionally cited in the Talmud (Sotah 14a) as the reason for visiting the sick – as the Talmud says: ‘imitate Hashem, He visits the sick’ ~ therefore, Rashi cites this tradition as the simple meaning of the text that this was God’s primary purpose.

The Midrash emphasizes that God appeared to Abraham as Hashem, as the God of Mercy and Healing ~ to Abraham but not to the other circumcised members of his household.

Hirsch explains: God’s Presence is everywhere but is not apparent to everyone. Only after an act of devotion such as Abraham had just preformed, does it become apparent.

‘..plains of Mamre’ – The Torah does not usually mention the sites of revelations; and we already know from 14:6 that Abraham’s house was in the plains of Mamre. Rashi explains that the location is given because it was Mamre who had given Abraham encouraging advice regarding the circumcision. Therefore, God honored Mamre by appearing to Abraham on his land.

This is where Abraham and his household were circumcised. God appeared to Abraham and not to the others because he was the worthiest for that vision which had as its purpose the acknowledgement of the circumcision as the fulfillment of the Covenant. Perhaps it is for this reason that it is customary to set a chair (of Elijah) at the circumcision) at which Elijah, as God’s emissary, acknowledges the fulfillment of the Covenant. (Sforno)

18:2 ‘..he lifted his eyes and saw..’ – Though God had appeared to him and, from the context, was still present, Abraham continued to be engaged in his work of seeking travelers to whom he could display hospitality. Therefore, the verse says, ‘he lifted up his eyes’ implying that he was actively seeking out transients.

The word ‘behold’ suggests the unexpected – the men had not approached from afar, but were suddenly standing there as though materializing from thin air.

Three different angels were sent because each had a different function: One, Michael, to inform him of Sarah’s conception (v14); one, Gabriel, to overthrow Sodom (19:24); and one, Raphael, to heal Abraham for one angel does not perform two missions and likewise two angels do not perform one. (Midrash, Rashi)

Rashi goes on to explain that the interpretation – that each mission was performed by a single angel rather than all the angels sharing the performance of each mission ~ is evident from the text itself, for the Torah speaks of their eating (v8) and talking (v9) in plural; while the performance of each of their commissions is related in the singular. For example regarding the announcement of Sarah’s child (v10); and the destruction of Sodom (19:21, 22) the angels are referred to in singular, (especially 19:25: ‘he overthrew those cities’ (Bava Metzia 86b). Raphael, who healed Abraham, went on from there to save Lot. (That Raphael was charged with both missions did not violate the principle of ‘one angel does not perform two missions’ for the missions were not simultaneous as the second mission was in another place and the angel was commanded about it only after he had completed his first mission; therefore a fourth angel was not required. Additionally, since healing and rescue are related missions, and both were done for the benefit of Abraham, one angel could be charged with both tasks (Ramban).

‘He perceived..’ – Rashi notes that this is the second time in this verse that the verb (‘and he saw’) appears. He explains that the first time it has its ordinary meaning and he saw; the second time it means he understood; ‘perceived’! First he saw that they remained standing near him but made no move toward him. Then, he perceived that they did not wish to trouble him and he feared they were about to depart. For their part, they knew he would take the initiative, but stood in a display of respect, to show that they wished to spare him any trouble. Therefore, the verse continues ‘he ran towards them’.

18:3 ‘My Lord..’ – the word is sacred, referring to God. Abraham was taking leave from God, imploring Him ‘to pass not away from Your servant’ but to wait while he attended to his guests.

In Talmud, Shabbos 127a, Rav Elazar writes: 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, Abraham asked Him to wait.

We know from Abraham’s behavior that hospitality takes priority over the Divine Presence, but how did Abraham know?

If a king is someone’s houseguest and, during the royal visit, the king’s child comes with an urgent request, the host will quickly care for the child. The king will not feel slighted, for a service to his child is a service to him. So, too, with Abraham. After his circumcision, his every instinct and organ was devoted to God’s service. By hurrying to extend hospitality to God’s creatures, he was still engaged in the service of God.

18:4 The phrase ‘let some water be brought’ indicates being brought by a servant and not himself. Therefore, when Abraham’s descendants required water in the desert, God recompensed Abraham by providing them with water through his servant Moses – and not directly Himself – as it says in Numbers 20:11 ‘And Moses lifted his hand and struck the rock.’

Whatever Abraham personally did for the Ministering Angels, God did Personally for his descendants; and whatever Abraham did through an emissary, God did for his descendants through an emissary. And as a reward for ‘let a little water be brought’, they were rewarded with Miriam’s well.

18:5 ‘a morsel of bread..’ – An understated, modest description of a lavish meal about to be served. The Talmud derives from this that ‘the righteous say little and do much.’ (Bava Metzia 87a)

The Midrash notes that in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, we find that bread is the sustenance of the heart. In the Torah this verse: ‘I will fetch a morsel of bread and sustain your heart; in the Prophets (Judges 19:5): ‘Sustain your heart with a morsel of bread’: and in the Writings (Psalm 104:15): ‘Bread sustains man’s heart..’

The term used in this verse for ‘heart’ is not the usual form l’vavchem’ which is a longer form for hearts denoting the heart as the seat of two Inclinations ~ Good and Evil. Instead ‘libchem’ is used indicating only one heart, one inclination. This teaches that angels are free of the Evil Inclination. There was no conflicting desires in their hearts. Their only desire was to do good.

‘Insomuch as’ – Rashi comments: insomuch as, you have honored Me by calling upon Me. This is the meaning of this phrase whenever it occurs in Scriptures (19:8; 33:10; 38:26; Numbers 10:31.

‘Do so, just as you have said’ – The Talmud (Bava Metzia 87a) notes that the angels accepted Abraham’s invitation immediately, whereas in the case of Lot, he had to ‘urge them greatly’ (19:3).

The ethical lesson derived from this is: one may show unwillingness to an inferior person, but not to a great man.

18:6 ‘Hurry’ – As soon as a man has taken hold of a Mitzvah (literally means commandment or a command of God), he must rush to bring it to a conclusion, not as thou he were anxious to get rid of a burden, but in the spirit of apprehension lest he fail to complete it… whatever the righteous undertake, they carry out with haste. Of Abraham it is written: ‘Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Hurry, Three se’ahs of meal, fine flour, knead it and make cakes.’ And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf… “ We are similarly told of Rebecca, ‘And she hastened and emptied her pitcher into the trough” (24:20). Commenting on the verse, “and the woman made haste, and ran, and told her husband’ (Judges 13:10), the Midrash adds, “We may learn that the deeds of the righteous are always performed with speed and efficiently; no time is lost in undertaking a Mitzvah or in the execution of it.”

See then that a man who is righteous does not act sluggishly in the performance of His Mitzvos. He moves with the swiftness of fire, and gives himself no rest until his object is attained. Note, further, that as enthusiasm calls forth zeal, so zeal calls forth enthusiasm, for when a man is engaged in the form of a Mitvah, he feels that as he hastens his outward movements, his emotions are aroused and his enthusiasm grows stronger. But if his bodily movements are sluggish, the movements of his spirit also become lifeless and dull.

In the worship of the Creator, blessed be His Name, it is most important that the heart truly yearn after Him and the soul feel a longing for Him.

Therefore it were best for a man in whom his desire does not burn as it should, deliberately exert himself so that his zeal might become part of his nature, for the outer action awakens the inner attitude. And the outer action being certainly more subject to a man’s control than the inner attitude, if he avails himself of that which is within his control, he will in time acquire that which is beyond his control. As a result of deliberate effort, there will arise within him an inner joy and an ardent desire to do the will of God.

‘Knead and make cakes’ – Here, the word used is cakes, while in the case of Lot, the Torah specifically states that he served matzos, a thin unleavened bread, (19:3) in order that one chapter shed light on the other. The entire Torah is filled with allusions and lessons, what one part omits is supplied by another.

Although it was obvious that flour must be kneaded to make dough, Abraham nevertheless specified to Sarah ‘knead it’. He intimated to her that she should not share with a servant the mitzvah of hospitality, rather she should do even the kneading herself. According to the Midrashic interpretation that it was Passover and these were matzos, the significance was that she should knead and make the cakes without any intervening delay, lest they become chametz (for when time allows, it ferments and becomes leavened bread.)

18:7 “Abraham ran to the herd,” – Ramban emphasizes how this portrays Abraham’s great desire to show hospitality. Though he had many servants eager to serve him and he was old and still weak from his circumcision he nevertheless personally ran to choose the animals for the meal.

We see similarly in the Talmud (Shabbos 119a) that although many of the Sages of the Talmud had servants, they would be scrupulous to participate personally in the Sabbath preparations, considering it a great honor: Rav Huna would light the lamp, Rav Papa would braid the wicks; Rav Chisdah would cut vegetables; Rabbah and Rav Yosef would chop wood; Rav Zeira would kindle the fire; and Rav Nochman would carry home the marketing.

Note: Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Ukraine) was famous for his hospitality, to the point where he would perform even demeaning, menial chores to assure the comfort of his guests. Once his father-in-law was annoyed with his excessive tasks: “For a few pennies, you can hire a servant to do those chores!’ he shouted. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak replied, ‘Shall I give away the mitzvah of hospitality and even pay someone to take away my privilege?’

“..gave it to the servant..’ – The Talmud, noting that singular ‘it’ although there were three calves, answers that he gave each calf to a different young man to prepare ~ either in order to hasten the preparation process, or to train his men in hospitality.

18:8 Rashi says that even though there were three calves prepared, they served them as they became ready. This also offers a solution to the question: ‘Why did Abraham seemingly serve meat and milk together in violation of the Kashrus laws? Rashi’s explanation would thus imply that, following the order of the verse, Abraham first served the daily items for they naturally required less preparation and were ready first. Only afterwards, after they satisfied their thirst, and hunger, did he bring out the full meal which consisted of calves meat. From this we learn that butter and milk may precede meat.

18:9 ‘They said..” – Midrash Sechel Tov notes that all three asked, for had only one asked he would have cast suspicion upon himself. Subsequently, however, only the angel Michael conveyed the good tidings about the birth of a son.

‘.Where is Sarah..?’ – According to Rashbam the question was merely rhetorical, serving as an opening for their conversation, much in the manner that God asked Adam (3:9) “Where are you?”

Interestingly, according to Zohar, the angel’s question as to Sarah’s whereabouts was sincere for angels do not know what is happening in this world except what is necessary for their mission. (Tosafos Shabbos 12b)

18:10 “I will surely return..” – Surely, the angel was not announcing that he would return, he was speaking only as God’s agent indicating that God would return; this is similar to the angel who addressed Hagar (16:10) in first person but was speaking only as God’s messenger.

Ibn Ezra adds as proof that the angel spoke in God’s Name, that in verse 14 God Himself reiterates that it is He Who will return. Though it is not recorded that He did indeed return at the promised time, a reference to this return may lie in 21:1: “And Hashem remembered Sarah as He had said, and Hashem did to Sarah as He had spoken.”

“At this time next year..” – It was Passover, and on the next Passover, Isaac was born. There are differences of opinion as to when this visit took place: after Yon Kippur, or Passover. There is, however, no dispute regarding Isaac’s birth; all agree he was born on the first day of Passover. (Rosh Hashanah 11a)

In any case, the promise of the angel is this verse: “and behold Sarah your wife will have a son’ is not to be understood to imply that on this day next year ‘Sarah would give birth’, but that by this time next year Sarah will already have given birth on the original appointed day promised in 17:21 and will by then already have a son.

“Sarah was listening..” – She did not merely happen to overhear; she was listening. Although modesty kept her from the table, she did not want to miss the conversation, for Abraham’s every word with the guests was surely well worth the trouble of listening. (Hirsch)

18:11 “Abraham and Sarah were old,..” – This expression is used to describe one upon whom old age weighs heavily; one who has ‘entered into those days’ when he knows he must go the way of all flesh; one upon whom life has taken it’s toll.

18:12 “Sarah laughed..” – She laughed in disbelief because she thought that the guest’s statement was simply the courteous blessing of a human prophet (like that of Elisha – II Kings 4:16) and not a prophesy from God. She thought, therefore, his blessing unattainable in view of her advanced age. Such a miraculous rejuvenation would be as great a miracle as the resurrection of the dead, which only the command of God Himself could accomplish. (Radak, Sforno)

Note: A fundamental question arises: Abraham was already assured in 17:19 that Sarah would bear a son. Why, then, does Sarah now react with incredulous disbelief after God Himself ~ only three days earlier ~ made the promise?

Ramban concludes that Abraham had not revealed to Sarah what God had told him before his circumcision. Perhaps Abraham thought that God would undertake nothing until He revealed His plans to Sarah, His prophetess (see Amos 3:7). Or it is possible that within the hectic days in which Abraham in righteous diligence undertook to circumcise himself and his household, and the painful days of convalescence that followed, Abraham neglected to mention it to Sarah.

Additionally, Sarah did not know they were angels, and therefore gave no credence to their words.

Hirsch points out: it appears that Abraham felt he had no right to tell Sarah because he had not been specifically told to do so. Apparently, Sarah was meant to hear the news suddenly so that the very idea should appear ridiculous to her. She would laugh just as Abraham did (17:17) (but for a different reason) and in the future they would always bear in mind that the birth of a child seemed to them to be an impossibility.

18:13 “..Hashem said to Abraham..” – God Himself had been, if one may so express it, waited patiently while Abraham entertained the angels. Now He interjects in response to Sarah’s unbelieving laughter. Hashem accused her in Abraham’s presence of considering His promise to be impossible of fulfillment.

Why did God rebuke Sarah for her laughter and not Abraham for his (17:17)? This is comparable to a wise woman who wished to rebuke her daughter-in-law. Instead she directed her rebuke to her daughter, and the daughter-in-law understood the indirect message. Here, too, God rebuked Abraham indirectly in order to spare his feelings.

Perhaps the meaning is that when the offense was duplicated, God no longer wished to overlook it. He had not rebuked Abraham earlier but now that Sarah laughed too, He rebuked her for the offense, with the result that Abraham, too, was indirectly rebuked for his earlier laughter.

According to Midrash HaGadol, this teaches that when the lesser is rebuked, than the greater will understand also, but in the reverse case, if the greater were rebuked, the lesser might consider himself exempt because being greater obviously imposes greater obligations.

Since only Hashem holds the key to conception, it is He Who will cause her to give birth. That being the case, age was never a factor because the laws of nature are neglected in the face of God’s will.

18:14 “Is anything beyond Hashem?” – “Is anything so far distant and concealed from Me that I cannot accomplish whatever I wish?” (Rashi) “Do I not know that Sarah is old? Nevertheless, it is I Who promised, and there is no room for doubt!” (Abarbanel)

“At the appointed time..” – “the time I originally intended when I promised you to return (17:21) ‘at this time next year!” (Rashi)

This intended time was Passover, when everyone agrees when Isaac was born.

God Himself reiterated the promise now to reassure Abraham that in His displeasure with Sarah, He did not withdraw the promise, but that He would surely fulfill it at the destined time.

18:16 Two of the angels went on to Sodom, as it is written (19:1) and the two angels arrive in Sodom.

God, Himself, spoke to Abraham. He had come to visit with Abraham in verse 1, and if one may so express it, had been waiting all this time while Abraham had taken leave of Him to show hospitality to his guests.

gazed down toward Sodom” – The term “gazed down” is used because they were in Hebron, probably standing on one of the peaks of the Judean mountains from which they gazed down upon the panorama of the valley of Sodom.

Rashi notes that wherever the verb form of ‘gazing down’ occurs in Scripture (specifically in the Five Books of the Torah) it is always used in connection with calamity except in Deuteronomy 26:15 – “gaze down from Your holy habitation…and bless Your people.” (The verse deals with declarations that the required tithes, including that given to the poor, have been given) for so great is the virtue of charity that it changes what would ordinarily be an expression foretelling evil, into mercy.

“Abraham walked with them’ – The Zohar emphasizes the importance of escorting a departing guest ~ Rav Yesa says: ‘That Abraham escorted them shows that he was not aware that they were angels; for if he was aware, what need had he to send them off?

Rav Elazar disagrees: ‘Although he knew, he kept to his usual custom with them and escorted them. It is highly necessary for someone as a duty or responsibility to escort a departing guest, for this crowns a good act.

This is why the present tense ‘was walking’ is used, because this escorting is linked with the next verse. For while Abraham was accompanying them, God appeared to him to reveal His intentions. Thus, when one escorts his departing guests, he draws the Shechinah to accompany him on a way as a protection.

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