When Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch had his fourth or fifth birthday,1 he visited his grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, on the Shabbos of the Torah portion Vayeira, in order to receive his grandfather’s birthday blessing.

Upon entering his grandfather’s room, the child began to cry. When his grandfather asked him why he was crying, he answered that he had learned in cheder that G‑d appeared to Avraham. He was crying because he could not understand why G‑d appeared to Avraham but does not appear to us.

The Tzemach Tzedek responded: “When a Jew, a tzaddik, decides at the age of 99 to circumcise himself, he deserves to have G‑d appear to him.”2

We must understand the following: “G‑d appeared to Avraham” is mentioned twice in the previous Torah portion of Lech Lecha.3 Why, then, the child’s tears for G‑d’s appearance to Avraham and not to him in relation to the verse in Vayeira and not to the earlier verses in Lech Lecha. Why didn’t G‑d’s appearance there bring the child to tears?

We may answer quite simply that it was only because the child came to receive his birthday blessings on the Shabbos of his birthday, the Shabbos of Vayeira. Consequently, he asked his grandfather about that which he had just learned in Vayeira, that G‑d appeared to Avraham, giving rise to the question and tears of why G‑d does not appear to him as well.

But the question still remains why the Tzemach Tzedek only responded to the question regarding why G‑d appeared to Avraham in Vayeira and ignored the fact that G‑d had also appeared to Avraham — for completely different reasons and even before he circumcised himself — twice previously?

The Baal HaTurim4 writes that G‑d’s revelation to Avraham (in Vayeira) was in the merit of performing the mitzvah of circumcision.

We may then say that the complaint and cry of the child was that he, as well, had the very same merit of circumcision — so then why doesn’t G‑d reveal Himself to him? To which the Tzemach Tzedek answered: Avraham’s circumcision possessed a far superior quality, inasmuch as he performed it at the age of 99.

This answer, however, is fraught with difficulty: Rashi5 explains that G‑d’s appearance to Avraham was not merely a reward for his circumcision, but also a visit to him while he was ill. Since Rashi created his commentary on the Torah also for a five-year-old, it follows that the child’s question was also in accordance with Rashi’s commentary.

Moreover, Sholom Ber, a most precocious child, surely knew of the tremendous quality possessed by Avraham; most certainly he understood that Avraham’s circumcision at 99 was incomparably greater than that of an infant of eight days. So even according to the Baal HaTurim who posits that G‑d’s revelation was in merit of Avraham’s circumcision, there would not be a likeness in the child’s mind between his circumcision and Avraham’s.

The answer is as follows. In point of fact, the child’s lament resulted from his knowledge of Rashi’s commentary — that G‑d visited Avraham because he was ill:

Without Rashi’s commentary the child wouldn’t have even thought to compare himself to Avraham — that G‑d should appear to him as well.6 However, asked the child, as Rashi explains that G‑d’s revelation to Avraham resulted not so much from Avraham’s great qualities but because a kind G‑d performed an act of kindness, then why shouldn’t He — in His kindness — appear to him as well?

The Tzemach Tzedek answered this question by saying to his grandson: “When a Jew, a tzaddik, decides at the age of 99 to circumcise himself, he deserves to have G‑d appear to him.”

In effect, the Tzemach Tzedek told his grandchild that although G‑d’s appearance to Avraham was not so much a result of Avraham’s qualities but because of G‑d’s kindness, nevertheless, one must be worthy of this revelation — one must be a fit vessel and receptacle to receive this degree of revelation.

How does one become “a fit vessel and receptacle”? By firmly resolving that no matter how lofty one’s spiritual level, he should always aspire to rise ever higher: “a Jew, a tzaddik, decides at the age of 99 to circumcise (i.e., further elevate and refine) himself.”7

Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XX, pp. 61-64.