And G‑d revealed Himself to [Abraham], in the Plains of Mamre, as he sat in the doorway of his tent in the heat of the day.
-- Genesis 18:1
It was the third day following Abraham's circumcision, and G‑d came to visit him to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick.
-- Rashi on verse; Talmud, Bava Metzia 86b
In 1798, the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, was arrested on charges of treason against the Czar and imprisoned in the Peter-Paul Fortress, situated on an island in the Neva River in Petersburg. During his 53-day imprisonment, the Rebbe was frequently ferried across the river to a building on the mainland to be interrogated by the Czar's secret police.
One night, as the small boat was making its way across the river, the sky cleared and a quarter moon illuminated the skies. Wishing to avail himself of the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of kiddush levanah ("sanctification of the new moon"), Rabbi Schneur Zalman requested from the official in charge that the boat be stopped for a few minutes. The official refused.
Suddenly, the boat came to a complete halt. Nothing the ferryman could do would advance it a single oar-sweep. Rabbi Schneur Zalman stood up in the boat
and recited the first few verses of Psalm 148, which preface the blessing on the moon.
But the Rebbe did not continue with the recitation of the blessing itself. As
suddenly as it had halted, the boat resumed its movement toward the opposite
shore. Again Rabbi Schneur Zalman turned to the official in charge and asked
that the boat be halted.
"If you give me your blessing, in writing," said the official, "I'll stop the
The Rebbe promised to fulfill his request. At a word from the official, the
ferryman pulled in his oars and the Rebbe proceeded to perform the mitzvah of
This story demonstrates the principle that the mitzvot (divine commandments)
of the Torah are designed to be acted out within the natural world, not to
overwhelm it and supersede it. In the words of the Midrash,
When G‑d created the world, He decreed: "The heavens are
G‑d's, and the earth is given to man." But when He wished to give the Torah to Israel, He rescinded
His original decree, and declared: "The lower realms may
ascend to the higher realms, and the higher realms may
descend to the lower realms."
G‑d is infinite, beyond all definition and categorization. The physical
reality is finite, and can relate only to definable and categorizable realities.
So the very nature of creation dictates that an unbridgeable gulf separate the
earthly from the divine. Man may reach for heaven, but the limitations of the
physical state invariably shackle him to earth. G‑d may make an appearance on
earth, dispelling its materiality and corporeality, but this means that the very
characteristics that make the earth "earthly" have been suspended. No connection
has been established between the lower realms and the higher realms, for at such
times, the lower realms are no longer "lower realms."
This was the prevailing state of affairs before G‑d gave us His Torah on
Mount Sinai. Man was capable of great, noble, even holy deeds, but all human
achievement was confined either to the "lower" or the "higher" realms--to the
physical or to the supernal dimensions of existence. Man could develop and
refine his physical self and world; he could even profoundly influence the
supernal worlds and G‑d's relationship with His creation; but he could not
bridge the gap between the two realms. He was unable to sanctify the
physical--to make G‑d a present and palpable reality in his life. The earthly
and the G‑dly remained two distinct, self-contained worlds.
This "decree" was rescinded with the revelation at Sinai. At Sinai, G‑d
commanded us the mitzvot. Six hundred and thirteen human deeds, involving every
area of human life, were deemed by G‑d to constitute the fulfillment of His
will. After Sinai, when physical man takes a physical coin, earned by his
physical prowess and toil, and gives it to charity; or when he forms a piece of
leather to a specified shape and dimensions, inserts into it parchment scrolls
inscribed with specified words, and binds them to his head and arm as
tefillin; or when he bakes flour and water as unleavened bread (matzah) and
eats it on the first night of Passover--he is doing a mitzvah. A finite,
physical deed becomes the realization of a divine desire.
Through the mitzvot, the lower realms ascend to the higher realms without
being divested of their lowliness. On the contrary: the very features and
characteristics that define the earthly as "lowly"--its physicality, finiteness
and tactility--serve as vehicles of connection with G‑d.
Hence Rabbi Schneur Zalman's reluctance to avail himself of any supra-natural
aids to the fulfillment of a mitzvah. For to do so would counteract a most basic
function of the mitzvah. The specialness of the mitzvah over other avenues of
relationship with G‑d lies in that even as it elevates a human deed to become
the very embodiment of a divine desire, the mitzvah remains a wholly natural
deed--a deed belonging to the human and physical realms of existence.
The Third Day
The principle of the "natural mitzvah" also sheds light on an episode in the
life of the first Jew, Abraham.
In the closing verses of the 17th chapter of Genesis, we read how, by command
of G‑d, Abraham circumcised himself and all the members of his household.
Chapter 18 opens by telling of a divine visit to the recuperating Abraham: "G‑d
revealed Himself to him in the Plains of Mamre, as he sat in the doorway of his
tent in the heat of the day."
Our sages explain that G‑d came to pay Abraham a "sick call"--indeed, G‑d's
visit to Abraham is cited as a source for the mitzvah of bikkur cholim,
"visiting the sick." "It was the third day following his circumcision," says the
Talmud, "and G‑d came to inquire after his health."
But why did G‑d wait three full days to visit the ailing Abraham? G‑d's delay
is even more puzzling in light of the fact that the natural healing process
following circumcision takes three days. The Talmud tells us that visiting the sick not only serves to uplift
the spirits of the ill, but actually contributes to their recuperation. According to this, G‑d delayed His visit to Abraham until such time as
one of the primary functions of bikkur cholim was no longer operative!
Abraham lived several hundred years before the revelation at Sinai. In his
day, the "decree" dissevering the earthly from the supernal was still in force.
So though he was a man with great--indeed, unprecedented--achievements in both
the earthly and supernal realms, his deeds could not bridge the schism between
the two worlds.
Nevertheless, as the father of the Jewish people, Abraham's was a life that
embodied the saga of a people, enfolding within it every milestone of Jewish
history. The giving of the Torah
at Mount Sinai also had its precedent and prototype in the life of the first
The Sinai in Abraham's life was G‑d's granting him the mitzvah of milah
(circumcision). This was the only one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah expressly
commanded to Abraham; this was the only occasion in which he was empowered to
sanctify the physical, to surmount the divide
between the human and the divine. Indeed, it was Abraham's fulfillment of the
mitzvah of circumcision that paved the way for our empowerment at Sinai to bring
together the higher and the lower realms through the observance of the mitzvot.
As the archetypal mitzvah, Abraham's circumcision had to be a completely
natural act, in keeping with the aim that the mitzvot should be enacted within
the natural world and thus effect a true union between the earthly and the
divine. Not only the performance of the mitzvah itself, but also the
preparations for it, as well as its aftermath, had to strictly conform to the
natural mold. Had G‑d visited Abraham before the third day, this would have
alleviated the pain and discomfort that is naturally experienced during this
period of time as the result of the act of circumcision. This would have
constituted a supra-natural intervention in Abraham's mitzvah, diminishing its
"naturalness" and the extent to which it bound the humanness of its observer
with its divine commander.
A Swath of Life
As the example of Abraham's circumcision demonstrates, a mitzvah extends far
beyond its momentary act of fulfilling the divine will. It reaches backward and
forward in time to embrace all that leads up to and enables the act and all that
results from it, and include them all in the encounter with G‑d that the mitzvah
So the cost of a mitzvah, whether it involves an outlay of money, time or effort, or even hardship or pain, should not be regarded as a "sacrifice" or "the price to pay" for an opportunity to serve the divine will. Rather, it should be welcomed as the way in which a greater area of our life is elevated to inclusion in an act of mitzvah--an act that marks the pinnacle of human achievement and our most profound medium of relationship with G‑d.