Chapter 18

1 God appeared to him: When, as a young boy, Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch learned this verse for the first time, he came in tears to his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch (the Tzemach Tzedek), and cried, "If God appeared to Abraham, why doesn't He appear to me, as well?" In reply to his little grandson's anguished question, the Tzemach Tzedek told him that Abraham merited having God appear to him because, although he had indeed refined himself enough to attain very sublime levels of Divine consciousness, he at the same time knew that God is infinite, and that therefore there were still an infinite number of levels of Divine consciousness to attain. This recognition left Abraham feeling grossly inadequate, as though he were still encrusted by layers of insensitivity to Divine awareness that needed to be removed—to be "circumcised"—in order to bare his heart before his Creator.

Much is to be learned, both from the child's impassioned question as well as from his grandfather's answer. Firstly, we learn that we must yearn—even cry out—for God to reveal His presence to us. Secondly, we learn that we, too, can merit to see God's presence if we realize that no matter how much we may have achieved spiritually, we are still not perfect: we still need to "circumcise" ourselves—to remove "the foreskin of the heart"— which prevents us from attaining yet higher levels of Divine consciousness.1


[1] To pay a visit to the sick: The Talmud informs us2 that there are fifty "gates" of understanding, i.e., fifty general levels of Divine consciousness that we can aspire to attain. These levels are termed "gates" because they are the entryways into different levels of our relationship with God.

Whether acquired through experience, study, or introspection, the lessons we learn from life are meant to help us ascend the ladder of Divine consciousness, enabling us to progressively deepen our conceptualization of God as well as our perspective on how He relates to creation. We thus undergo numerous processes of spiritual growth throughout our lifetimes, each one leading us to and through fifty gates of Divine consciousness. Some of these processes are woven structurally into the fabric of Jewish life, such as the annual re-experience of the journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai that comprises the fifty days between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot. Other processes are more personal and less structured, and we may not even be consciously aware of the discrete steps along the way. In all cases, however, the first forty-nine "gates" are those we reach through our own efforts, while the fiftieth is the crowning level bestowed upon us by God in recognition of our having successfully attained the first forty-nine on our own.3

Thus, until we reach the forty-ninth gate of any specific spiritual growth process, we sense that we can still ascend further on the ladder of Divine consciousness by virtue of our own efforts. But upon reaching the forty-ninth gate, our desire to continue to enhance our relationship with God causes us to long intensely for the elusive fiftieth gate; we become "lovesick" for it. This is alluded to by the fact that the numerical value of the word for "sick" (חולה) is forty-nine, since this longing is the spiritual source of physical illness.4

This is exactly what happened to Abraham when God commanded him to circumcise himself. As we have seen, 5 Abraham voluntarily undertook to observe all the Torah's commandments with the exception of circumcision, which he purposely waited to perform until explicitly commanded to do so by God. This was because he knew that only by circumcising himself in response to God's direct command would he be able to fully avail himself of circumcision's capacity to elevate him to the most sublime spiritual heights. Similarly, God did not give Abraham the command until He saw that he had exhausted his own capacities for self-refinement and had indeed attained the highest level of Divine consciousness possible on his own. Giving him the commandment at this point brought him to the limits of his ability to climb upwards on the ladder of Divine consciousness.

Thus, by circumcising himself, Abraham unquestionably reached his forty-ninth gate, which in turn made him "lovesick" with longing for the elusive fiftieth. Since his body was fully in tune with his soul, this longing manifested itself as physical illness. In appearing to him after the circumcision, 6 God granted Abraham access to the fiftieth gate, whose revelation healed him of his spiritual malady, in turn bringing about his physical healing, as well. 7

Abraham was sitting: Before his circumcision, Abraham's body was not sufficiently refined to endure the spiritual intensity of God's revelation; as a result, it was sapped of its physical strength, causing him to fall.8 Through circumcision, his body became refined enough to withstand God's revelation.9 In fact, it was now capable of withstanding an even loftier revelation than Abraham had ever before experienced.10

Of all the commandments, circumcision is the only one able to affect the body in this way, because it is the only one that visibly and permanently alters the physical body. Furthermore, specifically because it sanctifies the physical flesh—which is otherwise the driving force behind our basest impulses—circumcision accomplishes God's purpose in creating the world, which is to transform it into a home for Divine consciousness, more directly than any other commandment. Circumcision therefore has the power to elicit the most sublime levels of Divine revelation.11

On the third day after his circumcision: Since the Torah's commandments are meant to affect the entire material universe, including the physical body, they must therefore be fulfilled in a natural, non-miraculous way. For example, since it is normative practice to pay for things we acquire or for services rendered to us, we should expect to have to do the same in order to perform God's commandments. In fact, the Zohar12 indicates that it is preferable to pay full price to perform a commandment rather than seek to do so for free or at a discounted price. Indeed, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (the Arizal) was known to never have been dissuaded by the cost of fulfilling a commandment and was always prepared to pay any asking price.13 As we have seen, the natural pain that accompanies circumcision is a significant ingredient in its fulfillment.14

This is why God waited until the third day after Abraham's circumcision to visit him. God's very visit would have immediately healed Abraham miraculously of his wound. Therefore, had He visited Abraham any earlier, He would have "disrupted" the natural healing process that circumcision requires, thus risking compromising the integrity of Abraham's fulfillment of the commandment. Only on the third day, when a wound begins to heal naturally on its own, did God visit him and cause the wound to heal completely.15

God revealed Himself to Abraham Mamre's his territory: As mentioned above,16 Abraham wanted his circumcision to take place within the framework of nature. He therefore first consulted with the leaders of his time in order to gain their approval. By gaining Mamre's personal approval, Abraham enlisted natural, human intellect in support of his circumcision.

By giving his stamp of approval to his step, Mamre became both worthy and capable of experiencing something of the selfsame Divine revelation experienced by Abraham in the merit of his circumcision. In fact, in the merit of Mamre's consent, this revelation even permeated the physical territory of his domain, spiritually refining it and thereby rendering it conducive to living a Godly way of life. The Torah therefore makes a point of mentioning that God appeared to Abraham in the Plains of Mamre.17

2 He looked up and behold, three men were standing: During the course of his conversation with God, Abraham was profoundly engrossed in the Divine revelation. Even during our own prayers, when we are the ones who initiate the Divine encounter, we are enjoined to first clear our minds of any distracting thoughts.18 The fact that Abraham noticed the men, despite the intensity of his concentration, shows his extraordinary sensitivity to others.

This sensitivity is the key to hospitality. When offering hospitality to guests, a host must do much more than merely proffer a free meal. He must focus fully on his guests and their needs, display sincere concern for their welfare and comfort, take an interest in their conversation, and in general make them feel at home. Abraham was the paradigm of such sensitivity to others: in the very midst of a conversation with God, he took notice of three travelers and excused himself from God's presence to tend to their needs.19


[4] Recline under the tree: The Midrash teaches us that in the merit of Abraham's offering the angels respite under the shade of his tree, God rewarded his descendants with the commandment to dwell in sukot (huts that provide shade) during the Sukot holiday.20

Ironically, Torah law stipulates that it is prohibited to build a sukah under a tree, since the covering of the sukah must be fashioned from vegetation that is detached from the ground and no longer alive.21 That the shade of Abraham's tree was a precursor for our present-day sukah—despite its future invalidity—demonstrates the difference between Abraham's experience of the commandments and ours, after the Giving of the Torah:

Since the patriarchs were not explicitly commanded to fulfill the commandments, they could only perform them with whatever mental and spiritual powers were at their disposal at the time. This means that since they were finite beings, both their fulfillment of the commandments and the commandment's subsequent effect were likewise finite. In contrast, our performance of the commandments is in fulfillment of God's explicit command to us, and therefore connects us to the infinity of God.

This ability to transcend finitude by performing of a commandment is alluded to in the law stipulating that the covering of the sukah must be made of something detached from the ground: Our fulfillment of the commandments detaches us from the limitations of this world and unites us with God's infinity. Abraham, however, did not experience this level of connection to God through the commandments. Therefore, the covering for his "sukah" was the branches of a tree connected to the ground, alluding to the limitation inherent in his observance of the commandments.

Nevertheless, it was Abraham's praiseworthy actions that rendered us worthy of receiving both the commandments at Mount Sinai as well as the spiritual capacity to evoke their infinite power.22


[8] He first brought some cream and milk, and when the calf that Ishmael had prepared was ready, he placed it before them: If Abraham, as we have seen, indeed observed all the laws of the Torah even before they were given at Mount Sinai, then how could he have served milk and meat together at the same meal in blatant prohibition of the Torah's dietary laws?23

Two possible answers to this question are: (a) Abraham served the dairy food first, for it is permissible to eat meat a short time after eating dairy food; and (b) Abraham offered the two types of food separately, allowing his guests to choose either type but not both. Being the host par excellence, Abraham brought out three tongues, one for each guest, anticipating the possibility that all three might choose to have a meat meal.24

8 They could not really eat, but they feigned eating nonetheless: We might infer from this that Abraham did not actually fulfill the commandment of hospitality since the angels did not really need his food! But if this were the case, would God have bothered to make them appear human just so Abraham could imagine he was fulfilling a commandment? To complicate matters further, it would follow that Abraham interrupted his communion with God for what seems to have been an exercise in futility!

This question is based on an erroneous understanding of the concept of hospitality. The success of hospitality is not measured by the extent to which we satisfy our guests' needs— although that may indeed be a part of our hospitality. The central point of hospitality is that we pay attention to our guests.

In this respect, Abraham indeed fulfilled the commandment of hospitality. The angels may not have needed his food nor benefited from it, but they certainly enjoyed the privilege of being tended to by Abraham, whom they knew to be beloved by God.25

* * *

Prior to the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, fulfilling the commandments using physical objects was a spiritual exercise that did not imbue those objects with holiness.26 Only at the Giving of the Torah did sanctifying the physical world become a primary and integral objective in fulfilling the commandments. In light of this fact, as far as Abraham was concerned, his fulfillment of the commandment of hospitality centered mainly on its spiritual aspect, i.e., the expression of the supreme desire to care for guests. The fact that the angels did not need his sustenance did not detract in any way from the objective value of his acts of hospitality.

Nevertheless, the patriarchs' fulfillment of the commandments before the Giving of the Torah presaged their descendants' fulfillment of the commandments after the Giving of the Torah. The patriarchs therefore used physical objects to perform the commandments so their fulfillment would approximate the manner of their fulfillment after the Giving of the Torah. (We thus find that, although Jacob did not fulfill the commandment of tefilin in the same way in which we do today, he did seek physical objects with which to fulfill the commandment.27)

This need to connect spiritual intentions with physical reality was realized by the simple fact that Abraham actively sought actual guests to whom to serve actual food. The fact that the angels did not need this sustenance did not detract from the fact that Abraham had connected his intention to physical reality.28

16 Abraham walked with the men to escort them: The Talmud29 states that if we fail to provide our guests with proper escort when they take leave of us, it is as if we had killed them, since our negligence leaves them vulnerable to the dangers that may lurk on the road.

Moreover, if we fail to escort our guests, they may get the impression that we did not appreciate their company. By embarrassing them in this way, it is also as if we had killed them, since the Talmud points out that embarrassing someone, making them go pale, is a subtle form of "shedding blood."30 On the other hand, when we take the trouble to escort them on their way at the close of the meal, when our obligation as hosts is presumably over, we demonstrate that we were not acting out of mere obligation, but rather out of genuine interest in their overall welfare.

Abraham, the host par excellence, was therefore meticulous in escorting his guests.31


[16] To escort them: Jewish law obligates us to escort our guests—ensuring that they not be exposed to danger—as part of our comprehensive duty to respect our fellow human beings. Where danger is not a factor, the extent of our obligation to escort our guests is a function of the degree of respect with which we are required to treat them: our students least, our friends more, and our parents and teachers the most. The minimum requirement in any case is four cubits (2 meters or 6 feet). In dangerous areas, we must ascertain that our guests have arranged safe passage to their destination; the local rabbinic court is empowered to compel people to escort travelers or to use communal funds to hire escorts to accompany travelers to safety.32

18 Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation: The phrase "great and mighty" is not to be understood literally, since Abraham's descendants, the Jewish people, never became "great" or "mighty," neither in numbers or power. Rather, the phrase means that each individual Jew is spiritually "great and mighty," possessing all the strength necessary to transmit the message of Torah and goodness to the world.33

Through him all the nations of the world will be blessed: One of the manifestations of this promise is the immense contribution made by the Jewish people in all fields of human endeavor.34

19 I cherish him because he instructs his children and his household after him: God's affection for Abraham stemmed primarily from the fact that he educated both his family and his followers in the ways of monotheism and Godly morality. The fact that he taught and inspired others was more precious to God than all of Abraham's personal spiritual accomplishments as well as the tests he overcame.35

* * *

Abraham's love for God and commitment to Him was unparalleled. This is why God considered it insolent for anyone else to even use the same expression of humble readiness (Hineni—"Here I am"36) used by Abraham. When Moses responded to God's call using this expression,37 God chastised him for doing so, saying, "Do not presume to stand in the place of great ones!"38

Abraham's commitment to God was so absolute that he was even prepared to sacrifice his life for Him, should the need to do so arise. This preparedness became an ingrained part of Abraham's nature.

In this sense, Abraham's willingness to give up his life may be contrasted with that of the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva, aware that giving up one's life for God earns one the most sublime union with Him, actually prayed for just such an opportunity. Therefore, when the Romans brutally tortured him to death for his beliefs, he was ecstatic that his prayers had been answered.39 In contrast, however, Abraham's readiness to give up his life was unpremeditated: his attitude was that, were he to be faced with this sacrifice during the course of fulfilling his Divine mission, it would not intimidate him; were he not, neither would he be disappointed. Since he did not view giving up his life as an end in and of itself, he therefore felt no satisfaction when called upon to give up his life for his beliefs. In fact, he was frustrated when King Nimrod threatened his life and imprisoned him for his monotheistic views,40 since during his imprisonment he was not free to teach the world about God.41

Abraham bequeathed this selfless devotion to God to his descendants, and it subsequently became a hereditary Jewish trait. Indeed, over the generations, many of even the simplest of our people have willingly given up their lives rather than deny their connection to God for even a moment.42

To keep God's way by acting with righteousness [tzedakah] and justice: On a deeper level, "keeping God's way" means ensuring that God continuously recreate and sustain the world through the Divine Name Havayah, which is synonymous with His attribute of mercy. When God channels His creative, sustaining energy through His attribute of mercy, the world is blessed with an abundance of spiritual and material beneficence. We motivate God to use His mercy in this way by awakening and activating our own mercy towards others, dispensing charity (tzedakah) to all in need.

But it does not suffice to awaken God's attribute of mercy alone; we must also awaken His attribute of justice, since without it, God's mercy would act indiscriminately, sustaining negative forces as well. We awaken God's attribute of justice by examining the resources with which God has blessed us, determining what portion is really necessary for our own sustenance and what portion is superfluous, and then donating the surplus to charity rather than spending it on luxuries for ourselves.43 Furthermore, when we receive additional bounty from God, we should train ourselves to feel that we do not deserve to use it for ourselves when others have much less. This practice of self-imposed scrutiny will inspire us to give even more generously.44

This was precisely the manner in which Abraham dispensed charity, with both "righteousness and justice."45

We must also apply this practice of self-scrutiny to spiritual charity: it should be unthinkable for us to indulge in the luxury of secluding ourselves from the outside world, selfishly immersing ourselves in Torah study and prayer, while ignoring the spiritual plight of those who are ignorant of the basics of Jewish religion and life.46

23 He came forward…to confront God—to argue sternly with Him, to appease Him, and to pray to Him: As we have seen, Abraham epitomized the attribute of loving- kindness. Centuries later, God would even refer to him as "the one who loved Me."47 It therefore seems incongruous with his basic nature that Abraham would argue sternly with anyone, let alone God. What's more, arguing vehemently was the first approach he employed; certainly it would have been more logical and in keeping with his nature to first try prayer and appeasement, only then resorting to argument if the other methods failed.

The solution to the first inconsistency is as follows: Although it is true that Abraham had a naturally kind disposition, he harnessed it entirely for the fulfillment of God's will. His kindness was therefore subject to the discretion of his rational intellect; he was not above acting sternly when the occasion called for it. This leads us to the solution to the second inconsistency: when Abraham saw that the annihilation of the cities was already underway—the angels were headed toward Sodom—he realized that his first option had to be to demand of God to annul the decree—in order to (paradoxically) fulfill God's will of treating His creatures with loving-kindness.

Similarly, when we are presented with the opportunity to save another person, either physically or spiritually, we must not hesitate. We should immediately do all in our power to come to the person's aid, even if that means acting in direct opposition to the dictates of our natural dispositions.

Secondly, we must not delude ourselves into thinking that halfhearted efforts will bear fruit. Like Abraham, we, too, must "come forward," throwing ourselves selflessly into our efforts to save the other person. Only then are we assured success.48

Would You in your anger blot out the righteous together with the wicked?: Here we see another one of Abraham's innovations: he was the first person in history to speak up in defense of others. The Midrash relates that Abraham declared to God, "If You want the world to exist, strict judgment cannot also exist; if You want strict judgment to exist, the world cannot also exist." God replied: "Because you seek to justify My creatures' behavior, I will reward you by anointing you as My chosen one, which I have never done for another. Furthermore, in all the ten generations that have passed since Noah and the generation of the Flood, you are the first person with whom I have communed."49

The Midrash therefore asserts that it is this merit of Abraham's that sustains the world. In the verse, "These are the chronicles of heaven and earth, having been created on the day that God made earth and heaven,"50 the letters of the word for "having been created" (בהבראם) can be rearranged to spell the word for "in [or with] Abraham" (באברהם). The verse can then be understood to mean that God created heaven and earth in the merit of Abraham,51 since he was the first to speak up in defense of God's creatures.52

27 I am dust and ashes: As we have seen in the episode of his hospitality to the angels,53 Abraham's descendants were later to receive certain commandments from God in the merit of his good deeds. In the merit of Abraham's outstanding humility—in referring to himself as "dust and ashes"—God gave the Jewish people two commandments:54 (a) the precept of the red cow,55 in which a solution made with its ashes is used to ritually purify a person who been defiled through contact with a corpse; and (b) the precept of the bitter waters, in which a suspected adulteress is administered a solution prepared with dust from the Temple's floor in order to determine her innocence or guilt.56

The connection between Abraham's humble declaration and these two commandments appears at first glance to be merely coincidental. However, upon deeper reflection, it becomes clear that the two are indeed inherently related, and that in fact, God's bestowal of these commandments on Abraham's descendants as a reward for his humility is profoundly appropriate, "measure for measure":57

Abraham described himself as "dust and ashes" because he truly considered himself less worthy than anyone else, just as dust and ashes are trampled underfoot by everyone. He therefore did not hesitate to help others, even if doing so entailed endangering his own life. As we have seen, Abraham risked his life in going into battle against the four kings to save his nephew Lot.58 Similarly, in this episode, Abraham risks angering God for the sake of the inhabitants of Sodom.59

Furthermore: Not only was Abraham ready to sacrifice his physical wellbeing for the benefit of others, he was prepared to forego lofty spiritual experiences for their benefit as well. As we saw above,60 Abraham actually interrupted his conversation with God in order to offer hospitality to guests.

In the merit of this selflessness, Abraham's descendants received two commandments that epitomize the value of sacrificing one's own spiritual wellbeing for the sake of others:

  • The priest who performed the purification process with the ashes of the red cow became automatically ritually defiled by doing so.61 In other words, the priest, whose function was to officiate in the Temple in a state of holiness and purity, was called upon to give up that very holiness and purity in order to purify someone who had become ritually defiled.
  • In preparing the solution to be administered to the suspected adulteress (which would prove her innocence or guilt), the priest would take a parchment inscribed with part of a specific verse from the Torah, which included God's Name, and submerge it in water, thus causing the words from the parchment to be erased. As the Talmud points out,62 God is ready to have His Name erased in order to restore peace between husband and wife (when, hopefully, the waters will prove the wife's innocence). The priest is permitted, and, yes, even required, to commit the unthinkable act of erasing God's Name to help others.

Abraham bequeathed to us this capacity to sacrifice our own personal wellbeing for the sake of others. We, as his heirs, must act in this manner even if the beneficiaries of our sacrifice have become "defiled" through contact with "death" (the opposite of holiness, which is life63); or even for those who have behaved in such a manner as to have been suspected of immorality.64

Chapter 19

22 The angel…was forced to admit: Angels possess no intrinsic identity; they are simply personifications of God's missions. Therefore, when the angels declared, "We are going to destroy the city," they meant that God was going to destroy the city through them, since they did not perceive themselves as separate from God.65

Lot, however, misconstrued their words to mean that they did have independent powers outside of God's. Therefore, they were compelled to clearly state that their power was God- given.

We learn from this that when speaking with others, we must take into account how they will interpret our words and ensure that our intention not be misconstrued.66


[24-25] Sodom and Gomorrah were burned to ashes: The spiritual energies manifested in Sodom and Gomorrah were similar in nature to the energies prevalent in the world of Tohu, i.e., intense and self-focused Divine energies that could neither be confined to vessels nor coexist with one another. Their self-focus is reflected in the selfishness characterized by Sodom.67 Sodom and Gomorrah therefore had to be destroyed in their entirety, just as the world of Tohu was totally destroyed, so that the world of Tikun—the world of less intense but more synergistic light—could be built upon its spiritual ruins.

God's ultimate intention is for the infinite lights of Tohu to become contained and integrated within the vessels of Tikun, something which will only occur in the messianic era. The prophet Ezekiel therefore states68 that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah will be restored in the messianic era, just as the lights of Tohu will finally be absorbed into the vessels of Tikun at that time.69

Chapter 20

11 There is simply no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me on account of my wife: In this statement, Abraham voiced the two principles underlying his life's work: first, that making the world into a home for God means, above all, encouraging virtue and the practice of justice; and second, that a just and virtuous society is possible only if it is predicated on the belief in God as the creator and master of the world.

Belief in God must therefore be the foundation underlying the education of our children. Only when our children know that God created the world and wants it to be made into His home through righteous and just behavior can we be assured that they will behave justly and virtuously.

God planted within us two forces that motivate our behavior: a good impulse and an evil impulse. If society tries to discourage bad behavior solely by threatening us with punishment, our evil impulse will respond: "You are smart enough to hide your misbehavior and escape punishment, and even if you are caught, the enjoyment of doing what you want now outweighs the pain of the punishment you might get."

Therefore, the only way to ensure that the evil impulse not overcome the good impulse is by inculcating ourselves with the knowledge that God created us, our impulses, and our tests, and that He commanded us to resist the machinations of the evil impulse and behave according to His instructions. If we know this, we will realize that no matter how smart we are, we cannot hide our actions from God. Only if "there is fear of God in this place" will people not "kill me on account of my wife."

The tragic events of recent history attest to just how true this is. The most "civilized" country in the world, which boasted the greatest advancements in science, art, and philosophy—and even asserted that the whole world must emulate it—degenerated into a nation of monsters who sanctioned and performed unspeakably and unimaginably inhuman acts. The sole reason for this tragedy was that their wisdom was not based on the knowledge of God, to whom all people must answer, but on their own mortal intellect.70

Chapter 21


[1] God remembered Sarah…she became pregnant…. And God did for Sarah as He had spoken: The two expressions—"God remembered" and "God did"—allude to two distinct stages:

"God remembered Sarah" means that He created the energy in the spiritual worlds that would enable her to bear a child;

"God did for Sarah" means that He manifested that spiritual energy in the physical world.71

2 The baby looked exactly like Abraham: Our inner thoughts and emotions at any given moment are mirrored on our faces;72 with the passage of time, our approach to life and our way of thinking become etched into our faces' contours. And even from birth, our faces reflect our inborn personalities. Thus, the word for "face" (panim) also means "inside" or "inner dimension."

This correlation between the soul and the face especially held true of the patriarchs, since there was no dichotomy between their inner and outer lives: they presented no false façade to the world, so their physical bodies perfectly reflected their inner essence. Thus, since Abraham's innate personality was sheer kindness (chesed) and Isaac's was pure severity (gevurah), Isaac should naturally not have resembled his father—even though it is natural for children to resemble their parents.73 The only way Isaac could look like Abraham, then, was for God to have performed a miracle.

Yet this miracle, too, reflected an inner reality, for although kindness and severity are indeed diametrically opposed, on a deeper level they complement one another. Unlimited kindness can be counterproductive, so tempering kindness with severity is itself an act of kindness. The fact that Isaac resembled Abraham, then, reflected the truth that his outer severity originated in his father's kindness, and indeed, enabled it to be expressed in the most efficacious way.

In order to demonstrate that Abraham was indeed Isaac's father, God chose to make Isaac resemble Abraham even though He could have theoretically just as well made Abraham resemble his yet-to-be-born son, Isaac. The lesson for us here is that when we have the choice between accomplishing something either in a loving or stern way, we should choose the path of love. The path of love is more likely to succeed, and even if it does not, we will have still fulfilled the commandment to love our fellow Jew.74

We also see here that God suspended the laws of nature in order to convince the scoffers who did not believe that Isaac was Abraham and Sarah's child. Similarly, we, also, should spare no efforts to bring the truth of God's message to all strata of humanity, even to those who appear to be on the bottom rungs of society and morality.75

6 Whoever hears will be happy for me and happy with me: The literal meaning of Sarah's words is "whoever hears will laugh at me," for it is unbelievable that a man of 100 and woman of 90 could have a child.

This is exactly how our people's detractors have scoffed at us throughout the ages. "It is ridiculous to think that your young people will continue to abide by your old-fashioned, outdated values and practices. How can you be so old (-fashioned) and hope to have a child (who will perpetuate your life-style)? Do you really think your sons will lay down their lives rather than serve idols, as Abraham did? Or your daughters will remain pure even in an immoral environment, as Sarah did in Egypt?"

Yet, history has proven that if we dedicate ourselves to educating our youth uncompromisingly, the way Abraham and Sarah educated theirs, we, too will be able to boast offspring like Isaac, selflessly dedicated to our ideals.

Even if it appears that our youth are firmly entrenched in modern culture, seemingly estranged from Jewish values and practice, we should never underestimate the far-reaching effect that even the smallest exposure to Torah-true Judaism can have on their lives.76

12 Her prophetic insight is superior to yours: The degree of a prophet's prophetic insight into the affairs of this world is commensurate with his or her involvement in the world: the more attuned the prophet is, the greater the degree of prophecy. Abraham was somewhat detached and aloof from the world, viewing reality mainly from a spiritual perspective. He therefore could not perceive Ishmael's true evil, and subsequently failed to see the need to banish him from his household. Sarah, in contrast, was more involved in worldly matters, so she readily was able to perceive Ishmael's evil. Her prophetic vision was therefore superior to Abraham's.77

Another reason why Sarah's prophecy was superior to Abraham's is that we are taught that in the messianic era, the feminine aspect of creation will rule over the masculine.78 Abraham's and Sarah's spiritual refinement was so lofty that it enabled them to experience a foretaste of the messianic era.79 Therefore, Abraham was instructed by God to listen to his wife's advice.80

As we have seen, Abraham and Sarah are metaphors for the soul and the body.81 By enjoining Abraham (the soul) to heed Sarah (the body), God granted them a foretaste of the messianic era, in which the body's loftier spiritual source will be revealed and the soul will derive its physical sustenance from the body.82

33 He opened an inn…planted an orchard: Abraham's inn was the first public institution devoted to the dissemination of the belief in monotheism and to the ethical behavior that follows from this belief. Although institutions devoted to teaching Divine wisdom and values existed prior to this (such as the academy of Shem and Ever), they did not actively seek to change society's prevailing beliefs. By boldly establishing a public institution that challenged the world's hallowed tenets, Abraham promoted the awareness of monotheism even among people who never actually visited his inn. As its renown spread, Abraham's inn gradually became a major societal innovation that wielded profound and broad influence.

An orchard: The word for "orchard" (pardes) can also can be seen as an acronym for the Torah's four levels of interpretation: contextual analysis (peshat); allusion and allegory (remez); verbal analogy (derush); and esoteric allegory (sod).83 Abraham employed all four levels of interpretation when teaching his followers, imparting knowledge to each individual according to his or her receptive capacity.

Abraham's inn and orchard were thus two important aspects of his program to disseminate the awareness of God.

We, too, should firstly keep in mind that the very existence of synagogues and institutions of Torah study in a city exert great positive influence upon that city by the mere virtue of their presence, over and above the intrinsic value of the study and prayer that take place within their walls. Secondly, we should teach Torah to people in the manner most suited to their capacity for understanding, employing the specific level of Torah interpretation, as above, that speaks to their soul.84

He proclaimed the name of God, God of the Universe: In discussing monotheism with his guests, Abraham made all efforts to provide them with a comprehensive understanding of its philosophical principles, leading them methodically from the basic axioms on to the more advanced concepts in accordance with their individual ability to understand. He tailored his instruction to their level of intellect and knowledge via the use of parables and metaphors.

First, Abraham refuted the prevailing belief that God is too exalted to have any actual involvement in the physical world and that He has therefore relinquished His control over it to the forces of nature, which in turn are controlled by the celestial bodies. He taught his guests that, on the contrary, God is "God of the whole universe," meaning that it is precisely His infinity that enables Him to concern Himself with the affairs of the physical world just as easily as with the lofty affairs of heaven. In fact, it is God's infinity that allows Him to supervise the affairs of every last creature, even the most insignificant, down to the minutest detail.

He further explained that because God created the world ex nihilo, He must continuously create and sustain it in order for it to continue to exist. Since God created the world through speech, His word must constantly be present in creation, for if not, creation would revert to nothingness just as a person's words cease to exist as soon as they leave his mouth. And this principle applies not only to creation in general, but also to every facet of creation in particular.

Thus, everything in the world is under God's direct control and supervision, with the exception of those aspects over which He has given humanity free choice.

Furthermore, Abraham continued, it follows that God provides personally for every one of His creature's needs—including his guests'. In this way, Abraham proved to them that, in the final analysis, it was not he who had provided them with the meal they had just enjoyed, but God.

Finally, Abraham explained to his guests that not only is God the world's master and creator, but also that He and the world are one, just as the rays of the sun are one with the sun before they are emitted from it.85 Abraham explained that when we recognize that nothing exists outside of or in addition to God, it follows that even seemingly ordinary daily activities are in fact opportunities to connect with Him.

Even those of Abraham's guests who were too simple-minded to follow the logic of his reasoning were won over by the warmth and enthusiasm with which he spoke and the truth that they sensed in his words.86

If you insist that you have eaten my food, then you owe me the full price of the meal: Abraham's demand seems pointless: Of what value is a thanksgiving prayer if it is uttered for the sole purpose of absolving oneself of payment for the food?

Abraham at first tried to teach his guests about God through explanations and parables, but some of them remained unimpressed by his words. With these people, Abraham resorted to a more aggressive approach, designed to break down their spiritual wall of resistance. All people believe in God on some level, yet some are so callous and insensitive that they are in need of forceful encouragement to become aware of their dormant knowledge of God.87

The Torah instructs us to learn from Abraham's example and exert ourselves to disseminate Judaism, even when doing so requires the occasional use of pressure. For example, some might argue: Why approach a Jew with the suggestion to put on tefilin, when he may only acquiesce because he feels pressured to do so? Is the fulfillment of a commandment in this way of any value?

Abraham's actions expose the folly of this argument. The fulfillment of a Divine commandment, even if performed under pressure, is a great achievement in and of itself, and can awaken the individual's latent desire to fulfill the commandment. Since "one good deed leads to another,"88 that person will very likely eventually come to observe all the commandments, joyfully and of his own volition.89

He induced others to proclaim the name of God: The effect of Abraham's words upon his listeners varied, depending upon who they were. In the words of the Talmud,90 Abraham's guests "acknowledged, praised, and blessed the One who spoke and the world came into being."

Acknowledged: To acknowledge is to admit that something is true without necessarily fully understanding why. Some of Abraham's listeners could not grasp the depth of his words. Nevertheless, they were so inspired by his warmth and passionate love for God that they acknowledged that he was speaking the truth.

Praised: Others understood Abraham's teachings and, inspired by their newfound appreciation of God's greatness, began to praise Him themselves.

Blessed: The word for "bless" (bareich) connotes enlargement or expansion; to bless someone is to expand their sphere of activity or influence. Some of Abraham's listeners, such as his servant Eliezer, not only fully understood his words but also went on to disseminate them to others, thus expanding Abraham's influence upon the world.91

He planted an orchard in order to supply him with fruit to serve his guests: Abraham was not content with merely serving his guests bread to satisfy their hunger, salt to add taste to it, and water to quench their thirst; he even went so far as to offer them rare treats such as fruit, wine, and other delicacies. He did all this without remuneration, joyfully, for complete strangers.

According to the sages, kindness is one of the three innate character traits (along with mercy and bashfulness) that characterize every Jew.92 We inherit this trait of kindness from Abraham, and ours is therefore as boundless as was his. We can therefore emulate Abraham's kindness by not only providing others with their basic material and spiritual needs, but also warmheartedly providing them with material and spiritual luxuries, as well.

Since our benevolence stems from a place within our souls that transcends logic, it also transcends the finite dictates of logic, compelling us to strive to bring happiness and contentment to others to a degree over and beyond minimal necessity.


There is a direct correlation between Abraham's planting an orchard and the subsequent episode of the binding of Isaac.

History has shown that oppression and adversity give rise to uplifted morale, awakening an even stronger sense of self- identity in the oppressed people, whereas freedom and tolerance tend to cause these senses to atrophy. This has certainly proven true as regards the Jewish people: over the course of the generations, when we were permitted to practice our religion freely and openly, we often lost our devotion to our faith and to our ethos of self-sacrifice.93 Nevertheless, both Abraham and Isaac rose to the occasion in answering God's call to carry out the sacrifice—an act which required absolute self-sacrifice on both their parts—despite the fact that, prior to this, they had enjoyed a free and unhampered sojourn in the land of the Philistines for many years.

Abraham and Isaac possessed the fortitude to respond with this degree of ultimate self-sacrifice because they had accustomed themselves to cultivating selflessness by providing food, shelter, and luxuries to complete strangers, on a daily basis over the course of years, in a scope totally beyond the boundaries of logic and reason.

We, who are fortunate enough to live in a tolerant society, must similarly ensure that our children grow up imbued with selfless devotion to Judaism. In this way, they will be able, if called upon to do so, to transcend their self-centered concerns for their own comfort for the greater sake of Judaism and the Jewish people.94

Chapter 22

1 God tested Abraham: God tests us in order to bring our essential soul-powers to the fore. In fact, life in general—the very descent of the soul into this world—is such a test. Before descending into this world, the soul relates to God within the limits of reason and does not experience a love for Him that transcends reason. But when the soul is encased in a physical body, which is by nature antagonistic to spirituality, it must summon its innermost strength to remain faithful to God despite its daily trials and tribulations. With this newfound dedication to God, the soul comes to apprehend and appreciate God in a much more profound and intimate way.95

Why is this test associated with Abraham and not with Isaac, who not only went along with being bound, but was also the one who was willing to give up his life?

First of all, whether or not we are consciously aware of it, our children represent our most cherished and innermost dreams and hopes. It is the natural hope and ambition of all parents that their children surpass them and inherit a world superior to their own. Therefore, giving up one's own life is in truth less of a test than giving up that of one's child.96

Furthermore, the primary aspect of the test was not the self-sacrifice it entailed but rather the challenge it posed to Abraham's implicit faith in God: God promised Abraham that his son Isaac would be the one to perpetuate his legacy, yet now He was commanding him to sacrifice this very son, in seeming contradiction of His very own word. Yet Abraham unquestioningly carried out God's bid. Isaac, in contrast, had not been promised anything by God, so, ironically, his own faith was not put to the test in this episode.97

2 Please pass this test, so that no one will think that the previous ones were not real tests: As we saw when he was cast into the furnace in Ur of the Kasdites,98 Abraham was ready to suffer martyrdom for his beliefs. Yet martyrdom is not necessarily an act of self-sacrifice; in act, ironically, it can sometimes be an act of self-aggrandizement. For example, the martyr might expect to be lionized in society's collective memory; after all, history is full of people who have accomplished more by their death than they did during their lifetime. Also, if the martyr believes that he will be rewarded in the afterlife, giving up his physical life is simply relinquishing one form of life in order to attain a superior one. Finally, someone who possesses a high degree of personal integrity can easily convince himself that life would not be worth living were he to compromise his values.

Seen in this light, Abraham's willingness to give up his life for God at Ur of the Kasdites—his greatest test prior to the binding of Isaac—could be construed as a calculated (albeit holy) act. He chose to give up his life rather than deny his beliefs, for he knew that his soul would live on in the afterlife, and, furthermore, that his death would show the world that the teachings of monotheism are worth dying for, serving thereby to disseminate them more widely than ever before.

True self-sacrifice, then, is more than simply giving up one's physical life. It is being prepared to give up everything that lends meaning and consequence to life—being willing for it to be as if one had never existed, to be erased from history's memory altogether.

In this light, the binding of Isaac was the ultimate in self-sacrifice. Taking Isaac's life would not have publicized Abraham's devotion to God, since nobody but Isaac was present.99 On the contrary: Isaac's death would have spelled the abrupt end of Abraham's entire religious program, since he would be taking the life of the person whom he had groomed to carry on his legacy and promote his beliefs.

The binding therefore expressed true self-sacrifice on Abraham's part, motivated by neither physical nor spiritual gain, demonstrating that he was indeed a true servant of God. Furthermore, it proved retroactively that his overcoming the other challenges was also "real"—not motivated by ulterior motives but rather by his absolute devotion to God's will.100

The one you love, Isaac. Although Abraham loved Isaac because he was his son and because of his righteous behavior, he also loved him because of his innate personality. God has instilled within each of us a natural yearning for perfection; this is what attracts us to people whose qualities complement and complete our own—our opposites. Abraham, who was naturally predisposed toward kindness and love, loved Isaac, who was naturally predisposed toward severity and awe.101

(This concept of "attraction of opposites" is also evidenced in the musical preferences of the descendants of Ishmael and Esau. Since the Ishmaelites inherited Abraham's characteristics of kindness and joy, they therefore prefer melancholy music. In contrast, the Romans and Westerners, having inherited the traits of discipline and severity from Isaac, show a preference for joyful music.)102

I love them both: Abraham loved his sons equally, not only because they were his children, but also because each possessed a unique quality: Isaac possessed extraordinary piety and exhibited exemplary behavior, whereas Ishmael possessed the power of repentance, which is capable of transforming sin into virtue.103

The Land of Moriah is the future site of the Temple: The Temple was to serve both as a place to worship God104 (and offer sacrifices) and as the principal place where God would reveal Himself.105 The binding of Isaac anticipated these two functions: Abraham's supreme sacrifice in offering up his son prefigured the Temple's function as a place for Divine worship and offering up sacrifices; God's sanctification of Isaac as a sacrifice prefigured His self-revelation in the Temple,106 since the sanctification of an entity requires at least some influx of God's presence into that entity.

In a similar vein, Maimonides states that the binding of Isaac was meant to impart to the world two fundamental principles of the Jewish faith:107 Firstly, it demonstrates the degree of love and awe that we are capable of feeling and evincing toward God—even more than a father loves his own son. Secondly, it demonstrates the degree to which a true prophet believes in the veracity of his own prophecy, for Abraham certainly would not have sacrificed his son had he entertained the slightest doubt regarding the truth of his prophetic vision.

These two purposes of the binding of Isaac reflect the two functions of the Temple just mentioned: a place for people to worship God with love and awe and a place in which God reveals Himself to us.108

4 He saw the place from afar: According to the Midrash,109 when Satan realized that he could persuade neither Abraham nor Isaac to disobey God's command, he made it appear as if there was a river and then large boulders and thorns in their path. Thus >although Abraham's destination was visible to him, for a cloud hovered over the mountain, it nevertheless seemed to him distant and unreachable because of all the obstacles in his way.

So, too, in our lives: Sometimes we are faced with seemingly insurmountable challenges. Although we may see our destination or goal "from afar," nevertheless we convince ourselves that our particular circumstances prevent us from achieving our objective. Abraham taught us that even apparently insurmountable obstacles can be overcome, and furthermore, that with perseverance we can and will reach our goal.110


[4] He saw the place from afar: Abraham's behavior is analogous to that of a father who has to give his sick child some unpleasant-tasting medicine or administer to him some painful treatment. The father's compassion makes him reluctant to administer the unpleasant cure, but this initial feeling is in fact misplaced pity. The father must bravely "overcome" his own attribute of mercy and act decisively to help his child recover.

In this vein, the Zohar111 interprets the word for "the place" (hamakom) in this verse as referring to Jacob, the third patriarch, of whom it is said, "He took from the stones of the place."112 Abraham epitomized loving-kindness; Isaac epitomized discipline and piety; and Jacob epitomized mercy. In order to bring himself to sacrifice his son, Abraham had to distance himself from Jacob's attribute of mercy and instead assume Isaac's attribute of discipline. Thus, "he saw 'the place'—i.e., the attribute of mercy— from afar."113

Rabbi Dovber of Mezeritch interpreted the exchange between Abraham and Isaac, further on,114 in this vein. In its plain sense, the verse reads, "Isaac said to Abraham, his father, 'My father!' and he replied, 'Here I am, my son.'" In Rabbi Dovber's interpretation, it reads as follows:

Isaac said to Abraham, his father: "But you are my father, the attribute of kindness! What happened to your kindness?"

Abraham replied, "Now, I am 'my son'—in order to fulfill God's will, I have garbed myself in your attribute, the attribute of severity."115

[11] "Abraham! Abraham!": The first "Abraham" refers to Abraham, the person; the second refers to the supernal entity called "Abraham," i.e., the Godly source of kindness and love. Abraham the person, by evincing kindness and love, drew down the Divine energy of the "supernal Abraham."116

14 It is as if Isaac's ashes can be seen on the altar that Abraham built on God's mountain: The Torah usually requires the ashes of a sacrifice to be removed from the altar.117 The ashes constitute the element of earth remaining after the sacrifice's other constituent elements— air, fire, and water—have been consumed.118 Thus, the ashes are removed from the altar because they are too coarse to be elevated by the altar's holy fire. In contrast, Isaac's body was so refined that, metaphorically, even his ashes were fitting to remain on the altar

Self-sacrifice refines us in proportion to the extent of the sacrifice involved. The greater the sacrifice, the more dedication to God we must evoke in order to motivate the sacrifice; in other words, we can only sacrifice something for God if God means more to us than whatever it is that we are sacrificing. The deeper the layer of our being that is exposed in this process, the more refined we become.

The devotion we must evoke in order to give up our physical lives for God refines us so profoundly and completely that it transforms the very physical matter of our body, rendering it fit to embody spirituality. The material nature of the body, which is normally too coarse to reveal the Divinity that sustains it, becomes spiritually transparent.

It is precisely this sublime level that Isaac reached when he willingly surrendered his life to God. According to the Midrash,119 Isaac was not only willing to die for God; he actually did die: while bound on the altar, his soul temporarily left him and ascended to heaven. It was in this respect that Isaac's self-sacrifice even surpassed that of his father: whereas Abraham showed himself ready to give up his life (at Ur of the Kasdites) and even his entire being (at the binding of Isaac),120 Isaac actually did give up his life.

The episode of the binding of Isaac is recited daily as a prelude to morning prayers, since our ultimate objective in praying is to dedicate our entire being to God. If we pray with proper intention and devotion, this objective will be fulfilled: the lives we lead after we finish praying will be imbued with self-sacrifice; furthermore, our involvement in the physical world will be solely for the goal of enhancing our relationship with God and fulfilling our Divine mission in life. Even the most physical aspects of our lives—our "ashes"—will remain "on the altar," part and parcel of our Divine lives.121

18 Because you heeded My voice: The word used here for "because" (eikev) also means "heel," alluding to the fact that Abraham was so completely devoted to God that even his heel heeded God's voice. Through successfully passing God's tests and selflessly teaching the world about God, Abraham refined his entire being to the extent that even the lowliest part of his body, his heel, submitted to God. Indeed, his heel was more attuned to God's word than was the mind of the greatest of philosophers, for the mind can only conceptualize God; Abraham felt God with his entire being.

Nowadays, we can achieve a similar degree of self- refinement by following in Abraham's footsteps and selflessly disseminating Divine consciousness throughout the world. This process begins with ourselves; intense study of the teachings of Chasidism trains us to sense Godliness with every limb of our bodies, down to our very bones. As King David said,122 "All my bones proclaim, 'God, who is like You!'"123

20 After these words: The juxtaposition of the narrative of the binding of Isaac with that of the birth of his future wife, Rebecca, demonstrates that self-sacrifice is an integral part of a healthy marriage. When we marry, we are forced to focus on the immediate tasks of supporting our families, and dealing with the material world and its attendant mundane matters. No longer are we free to focus as intensely on our own spiritual development. Although marrying and raising a family are indeed a part of fulfilling our Divine mission to make the world into God's home, we are forced to sacrifice some of the intensity of our own pursuit of spiritual growth. Marriage is thus a form of self- sacrifice.124

The juxtaposition of these two events alludes to yet another fact: We are taught that before the binding, Isaac was unable to have children. After the binding, God granted him a soul capable of bearing children.125

Because the capacity to bear children is inexorably intertwined with the concept of self-sacrifice, we see that children have an innate capacity to unequivocally accept the notion of self-sacrifice. Some educators have recommended against teaching young children the story of the binding of Isaac, claiming that it would unnecessarily frighten them. Their fear is unfounded, however, since Jewish children instinctively understand self-sacrifice to an even greater degree than do adults.126

24 Reumah: The name Reumah can be read as two words, meaning "look [at] what" (reu mah).

When not used to mean "which one" or "which kind," the word "what" often means "of what significance is…," or "how little are…," as in the phrases, "What are we?,"127 and "What does God, your God, ask of you?"128 It thus indicates humility or self- abnegation.129 In this context, Reumah would mean, "take notice of my self-nullification," referring to people who brag about their humility!

There was once a person who had many good qualities but was unfortunately also arrogant. His friends suggested that if he were to simply acquire the attribute of humility, he would then be perfect! The man agreed and started acting humbly. At one point, when a fellow was pestering him, the "humble" man finally lost his patience: "Fool!" he cried, "you are nothing compared to me! Do you know who I am? I not only have many good qualities, I also now possess humility as well!"130

The "reumah syndrome" can take on a more subtle form as well: we can in fact be selfless, while on some subtle level still maintaining an awareness of our selflessness. Our ultimate goal therefore should be to become truly and entirely unaware of our selfhood.131