It was the third day from Abraham’s circumcision, and G‑d came to inquire after Abraham’s health.
G‑d drew the sun out of its sheath, so that the righteous one should not be troubled with wayfarers. Abraham sent Eliezer out [to seek travelers], but he found none. Said Abraham, “I do not believe you,” and himself went out, and saw G‑d standing at the door.
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 86b)
Who were the three men? The angels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael. Michael (“Who is like G‑d?”) came to bring the tidings to Sarah of Isaac’s birth; Raphael (“Healing of G‑d”), to heal Abraham; and Gabriel (“Might of G‑d”), to overturn Sodom. But is it not written, “The two angels came to Sodom at evening”? Michael accompanied Gabriel, to rescue Lot.
(Talmud, Bava Metzia 86b)
This verse has two meanings. One meaning is that Abraham is addressing the most prominent of the three guests, asking him and the others not to pass by his tent without availing themselves of his hospitality. Another meaning is that Abraham is addressing G‑d, asking Him to stand by while he attends to his guests.
Said Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav: This is to teach us that taking in guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence.
(Rashi on this verse; Talmud, Shevuot 35b)
Said the divine attribute of chesed (love): “As long as Abraham was around, there was nothing for me to do, for he did my work in my stead.”
The way of G‑d, to do tzedakah and justice (18:19)
What is the meaning of the verse, “You shall walk after the L‑rd your G‑d?” Is it then possible for a human being to walk after the divine, which is described as a “devouring fire”? But the meaning is to follow the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He.
G‑d clothes the naked, as it is written, “G‑d made for Adam and for his wife coats of skin, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21); so should you too clothe the naked.
G‑d comforts mourners, as it is written, “It came to pass, after the death of Abraham, that G‑d blessed Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11); so should you too comfort mourners.
G‑d buries the dead, as it is written, “He buried him in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6); so should you too bury the dead.
(Talmud, Sotah 14a)
In Sodom it was decreed: “Whoever hands a piece of bread to a pauper or stranger shall be burned at the stake.”
Plotit, a daughter of Lot, was married to one of the leading citizens of Sodom. One day she saw a pauper starving in the street, and her soul was saddened over him. What did she do? Every day, when she went to draw water from the well, she would take some of the food from her home in her pitcher and feed the pauper. But the people of Sodom wondered, “This pauper, how is he surviving?” Eventually the matter became known and she was taken out to be burned, and her cries rose to the divine throne.
(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 25)
Our rabbis taught: The men of Sodom were corrupted only on account of the good which G‑d had lavished upon them. . . . They said: Since there comes forth bread out of our earth, and it has the dust of gold, why should we tolerate wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth? Come, let us abolish the practice of lodging travelers in our land . . .
If a person had rows of bricks, the Sodomites came and each took one brick, saying, “I have taken only one.” If a person spread out garlic or onions to dry, each one came and took one, saying, “I have taken only one.”
There were four judges in Sodom: Shakrai, Shakrurai, Zayafi and Matzlei Dina. If a man assaulted his neighbor’s wife and caused her to miscarry, they would say to the husband, “Give her to him, so that he may make her pregnant for you.” If one cut off the ear of his neighbor’s donkey, they would order, “Give it to him until it grows back.” If one wounded his neighbor, they would say to the victim, “Pay him a fee for bleeding you.”
They had beds upon which travelers slept. If the guest was too long, they shortened him; if too short, they stretched him out.
If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was sold to him. When he died, each came and took back his dinar.
A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, hiding it in a pitcher. When the matter became known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written: “G‑d said: ‘The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great.’”
(Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a–b)
The Zohar compares the actions of two righteous men, Noah and Abraham, when confronted with the knowledge that G‑d intended to destroy their fellow human beings for their wickedness. Noah set about building an ark that would shelter the handful of righteous individuals remaining in a corrupt world. In addition, the Midrash describes how he tried to convince his generation to mend their ways and thus be saved from the divine decree. But the Zohar faults Noah for not also praying for their sake, as Abraham did for the wicked inhabitants of Sodom.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the fact that Noah did not pray for the wicked of his generation implies that, ultimately, it did not matter to him what became of them. Had he truly cared, he would not have sufficed with doing his best to bring them to repent, but would have implored the Almighty to repeal His decree of destruction—just as a person whose own life is in danger would never say, “Well, I did my best to save myself,” and leave it at that, but would beseech G‑d to help him.
In other words, Noah’s efforts on behalf of others derived solely from his sense of what he ought to do for them, as opposed to a true concern for their wellbeing. This was the extent of his “love”—his own need to do the right thing.
This also explains a curious aspect of Noah’s efforts to reach out to his generation. When the Flood came, Noah and his family entered the ark—alone. His 120-year campaign yielded not a single baal teshuvah (repentant)! Perhaps public relations was never Noah’s strong point, but how are we to explain the fact that in all this time he failed to win over a single individual?
But in order to influence others, the Rebbe explains, one’s motives must be pure; in the words of our sages, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.” Deep down, a person will always sense whether you truly have his interests at heart or you’re filling a need of your own by seeking to change him. If your work to better your fellow stems from a desire to “do the right thing” and to fulfill the mitzvah to “love your fellow as yourself,” but without really caring about the result, your call will be met with scant response. The undercurrent of personal motive, be it the most laudable of personal motives, will be sensed, if only subconsciously, by those to whom you reach out, and will ultimately put them off.
Abraham, on the other hand, possessed a selfless love for his fellow man, as demonstrated by his daring intervention on behalf of the five sinful cities of the Sodom Valley. Abraham petitioned G‑d on their behalf, using the strongest terms to demand of G‑d that He spare these cities for the sake of the few righteous individuals they might contain. “It behooves You not to do such a thing!” he challenged G‑d. “Shall the Judge of the universe not act justly?!” Abraham was prepared to incur G‑d’s wrath upon himself for the sake of the most corrupt of sinners, giving precedence to their physical lives over his own spiritual integrity!
And because people sensed that he had their own good, and only their own good, at heart—they responded. When Abraham and Sarah left Charan for the Holy Land, they were joined by “the souls which they had made in Charan”—the community of men and women who had rallied to their cause. Sixty-five years later, Abraham was able to say to his servant Eliezer: “When G‑d summoned me from the house of my father, He was G‑d of the heavens but not of the earth: the inhabitants of the earth did not recognize Him, and His name was not referred to in the land. But now that I have made His name familiar in the mouths of His creatures, He is G‑d in both heaven and earth” (Rashi, Genesis 24:7).
Here they are called angels, whereas earlier they were termed men?
Earlier, when the Divine Presence was above them, they were men; but as soon as the Divine Presence departed from them they assumed the form of angels.
Rabbi Levi said: To Abraham, whose spiritual strength was great, they looked like men; but to Lot they appeared as angels, because his strength was feeble.
Rabbi Chunia said: Before they performed their mission they were called men; having performed their mission, they assumed the style of angels.
This teaches us that Sarah was superior to Abraham in prophecy.
This teaches us that a person’s prayer for himself is preferable to others praying for him, and is sooner to be accepted [for though the verse speaks of Hagar’s weeping, it tells us that it was Ishmael’s cry which G‑d heard].
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
For G‑d has heard the voice of the lad where he is (21:17)
The ministering angels hastened to indict him, exclaiming: “Sovereign of the Universe! Would You bring up a well for one who will one day kill Your children with thirst?” “What is he now?” asked G‑d. “Righteous,” said the angels. Said G‑d: “I judge man only as he is at the moment.”
(Midrash Rabbah; Rashi)
Said Rabbi Yitzchak: Throw a stick into the air, and it will fall back to its place of origin [the ground]. It is written, “She had a handmaid, an Egyptian, whose name was Hagar” (Genesis 16:1); therefore, “his mother took him a wife out of the land of Egypt.”
Said Rabbi Jonathan: A potter does not examine defective vessels, because he cannot give them a single blow without breaking them. What then does he examine? Only the sound vessels, for he will not break them even with many blows. Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, tests not the wicked but the righteous.
Isaac and Ishmael were engaged in a controversy. . . . Said Ishmael to Isaac: “I am more beloved to G‑d than you, since I was circumcised at the age of thirteen, but you were circumcised as a baby and could not refuse.” Isaac retorted: “All that you gave up to G‑d was three drops of blood. But here I am now thirty-seven years old, yet if G‑d desired of me that I be slaughtered, I would not refuse.” Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “This is the moment!”
Jewishness is not a matter of historical consciousness, outlook, ethics, or even behavior; it is a state of being. This is the deeper significance of the debate between Ishmael and Isaac. When the Jew is circumcised on the eighth day of life, he is completely unaware of the significance of what has occurred. But this “non-experience” is precisely what the covenant of circumcision is all about. With circumcision the Jew says: I define my relationship with G‑d not by what I think, feel or do, but by the fact of my Jewishness—a fact which applies equally to an infant of eight days or a sage of eighty years.
(From the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe)
(Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 25)
Can one bind a man thirty-seven years old without his consent?
But when Abraham came to slaughter his son Isaac, Isaac said to him: “Father, I am a young man, and I am afraid that my body may tremble through fear of the knife and I will grieve you, and then the slaughter may be rendered unfit and this will not count as a real sacrifice; therefore bind me very firmly.”
The founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, once related:
In Mezeritch, it was extremely difficult to be accepted as a disciple of our master, Rabbi DovBer. There were a group of chassidim who, having failed to merit to learn directly from our master, wanted to at least serve his pupils: to bring them water to wash their hands upon waking, to sweep the floors of the study hall, to heat the ovens during the winter months, and so on. These were known as “the oven stokers.”
One winter night, as I lay on a bench in the study hall, I overheard a conversation between three of the “oven stokers.” “What was so special about the test of the Akeidah?” the first one asked. “If G‑d had revealed Himself to me and commanded me to sacrifice my only son, would I not obey?”
Answering his own question, he said: “If G‑d told me to sacrifice my only son, I would delay my doing so for a while, to keep him with me for a few days. Abraham’s greatness lay in that he arose early in the morning to immediately fulfill the divine command.”
Said the second one: “If G‑d told me to sacrifice my only son, I too would waste not a moment to carry out His command. But I would do so with a heavy heart. Abraham’s greatness lay in that he went to the Akeidah with a heart full of joy over the opportunity to fulfill G‑d’s will.”
Said the third: “I too would carry out G‑d’s will with joy. I think that Abraham’s uniqueness lies in his reaction upon finding out that it was all a test. When G‑d commanded him, ‘Do not touch the child, and do nothing to him,’ Abraham was overjoyed—not because his only child would not die, but because he was being given the opportunity to carry out another command of G‑d.”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman concluded: “Do you think this was mere talk? Each of them was describing the degree of self-sacrifice he himself had attained in his service of the Almighty.”
Shem (the son of Noah) called it Salem, as it is written, “Malki-Tzedek, king of Salem” (Genesis 14:18). Said the Holy One, blessed be He: “If I call it Yireh as did Abraham, then the righteous Shem will resent it; while if I call it Salem as did Shem, then the righteous Abraham will resent it. Hence I will call it Jerusalem, including both names, Yireh Salem.”