Abraham Delegated

Abraham had just undergone circumcision at the age of 99 and was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Our Sages tell us that G-d deliberately “took the sun out of its sheath” to make it so unbearably hot so that no one would come and disturb the ailing and recuperating Abraham. Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent because he was troubled that he had no guests. To allay Abraham’s anguish G-d sent three angels disguised as humans. Abraham invited them into his tent and proceeded to serve them with a lavish meal.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) states:

“Whatever Abraham did for the ministering angels himself, the holy One blessed be He likewise did for his children Himself. But whatever Abaraham did through an agent, the Holy One blessed is He did for his children through an agent.’

The Talmud then details all the things Abraham did himself to serve the guests and how G-d “personally” repaid his descendants. The Talmud then refers to the one task he delegated: “Let some water be brought,” to wash the guests’ feet. G-d repaid his descendants by asking Moses to strike the rock for it to produce water for the people. G-d chose to give them water through the agency of Moses.

Commentators discuss the difference it made that G-d provided water through Moses rather than directly from G-d. After all, Moses was the trusted servant of G-d through whom the Jews were liberated from Egypt and given the Torah at Mount Sinai.?

The answer is that Moses’ erred when he struck the rock instead of speaking to it. This had terrible repercussions. Because Moses did not follow G-d’s explicit order to speak to the rock, Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land. And this too had tragic repercussions for 2,000 years. If Moses had entered the Land the Bais Hamikdash would never have been destroyed and the ensuing exile would never have occurred.

This answer provided by several commentators raises a painful question. Why would Abraham’s minor lapse of not personally bringing water to his guests cause such a horrible result of thousands of years of painful exile? Wouldn’t Abraham’s incredible dedication to serving guests while he was suffering intense physical pain eclipse his minor infraction of delegating responsibility of bringing water to his guests to an agent?

Another question: Our Sages explain that Abraham wanted them to wash their feet before entering his tent because he thought that his guests were human, and suspected of worshipping the dust on their feet. How could Abraham, the holy person he was, not realize that he was speaking to angels and not humans. Even his nephew Lot, who was far from a Tzadik, identified his visitors as angels. Yet the spiritually sophisticated Abraham could not see that! How could that be?

Abraham’s Elevation

It may suggested that precisely because Abraham was on such a high level that angels did not impress him and viewed them as mere mortals.

The rationale for this assertion is based on the well-known teaching that the human soul is truly superior to the greatest of angels. This is why G-d did not give the Torah to the angels but to humans. The simple understanding, as stated in the Talmud, is that we need the Torah’s commandments because we have a Yetzer hara-evil inclination, and we need the Torah to curb it. The deeper understanding is that when we follow the Torah and resist our evil impulses we rise above angels because we reveal our true celestial nature which transcends that of the angels.

However, that is true only when the soul is not burdened, and its light is not dimmed, by the physical body. When the soul enters the physical world and it clouds the light of the soul, the Jew needs the spiritual power and support of angels to elevate us. Indeed, we are taught that the angels “polish,” i.e., enhance our prayers that enable them to rise to the heavens.   

One of the obstructions to the light of our soul is our uncircumcised hearts. Although we are circumcised physically, we must still struggle to circumcise our hearts. Until such time, we must defer to the superior spirituality of the angels and even depend on them for support.

Abraham was an exception to this reality. He had not just undergone physical circumcision at the age of 99 but, as explained by the Alter Rebbe in his work Torah Or, Abraham experienced the higher dimension of circumcision; one that comes  from above, which circumcised his heart along with the circumcision of the flesh. Abraham was no longer the human being who looked up to the angels for spiritual guidance; he was now elevated to the superior dimension of an unencumbered soul in relation to which angels are mere finite creatures.

This provides us with a deeper meaning of G-d taking the sun out of its sheath. On the simple level G-d made it extremely hot so that Abraham should not be troubled by wayfarers who would frequent his tent. Chassidic literature however explains that the sun taken out of its sheath was but a physical manifestation of the unfiltered revelation of G-dliness that Abraham was able to experience. The removal of the sun from its sheath is also described in the Talmud of the way G-dliness will be exposed in the Messianic Age. “The righteous will be healed by it and the wicked will be punished by it.”

This revelation of G-dliness then was the result of his circumcision, It allowed him to bask in the futuristic light and which raised him to such an exalted level that rendered the most sublime angels to seem like simple mortals.

This explains why he suspected them of worshipping the dust of their feet. This can be understood figuratively. From his elevated perch he regarded them as no better than physical beings who were more connected to the earth than to heaven.

[In Kabbalistic terminology, the angels derive from and are “housed” in the lower three worlds of Beriah, Yetzirah and Aiyah, whereas the soul derives from the world of Atzilus-Emanation. The lower three worlds, although spiritual, have a closer relationship with the physical world.  He therefore wanted them to wash their feet to remove their association with their tinge of earthiness.

The exalted Abraham, however, could not relate to their earthiness and he therefore delegated this responsibility to another. This was akin to Moses delegating the responsibility of providing the Jews with meat in the desert. Moses could not lower himself to that level. Likewise, Abraham felt he could not lower himself to deal with the earthiness of the angels although he catered to their needs. Providing them with nourishment was a Mitzvah and Abraham could not desist from observing the Mitzvah that involved kindness, Abraham’s trademark. But to lower himself to their most base level and clean the dust off their feet; that, in his mind, had to be done by another.

Abraham’s Error

Notwithstanding Abraham’s superior spirituality, he was remiss in not lowering himself to that level. And it led to a situation where Moses likewise could not deal with the Jewish people when they complained about water. The greater one is the more they are expected to lower themselves to deal even with those who, figuratively speaking, worship the dust on their feet; the most materialistic people.  

We are now at the cusp of the Messianic Era when G-d will take the  proverbial sun out of its sheath, and we will bask in G-dly light. 

The lesson we have to learn from Abraham’s lapse is that, notwithstanding our heightened status we have to deal with every Jew no matter how level their level. Doing so will prepare us for the blissful experience of unobstructed G-dly light that will also bring an end to the evil forces that are presently seeking to harm the Jewish people.

May we see total victory over the forces of evil imminently!

Rabbi Heschel Greenberg

Published in Parsha

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