Parashat Vayerah – Understanding Angels
As people that live in the corporeal world, we are not accustomed to experience the supernatural. Nevertheless, growing up in an orthodox world of Torah we are exposed from a very young age to the spiritual realm. Praying three times a day and learning the Biblical stories of prophecy, miracles, and angels force us to enter this completely different level of existence. Naturally, as children we absorb spiritual concepts and happenings on a very simplistic level. The problem is that sometimes we spend our whole lives remaining with the same childish understanding that we attained as children. A perfect example of this is understanding angels. As adults, how should be relate to the Biblical depiction of and angel? This topic is vast and I don’t expect to do it justice in one essay. I would like to try and analyze the opening verse of this week’s portion according to some of our classical commentaries that I hope will shed light on this topic.
This week’s Torah portion opens up with “and Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.” And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, “My lord, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant (Genesis 18:1-3).
Start reading the verse again “and Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot” and then stop for a few seconds. What would you expect to follow? Logically, we would expect to see a Divine message given to Abraham through this appearance similarly to Genesis 17:1 And Abram was ninety-nine years old, and God appeared to Abram, and He said to him, “I am the Almighty God; walk before Me and be perfect. Interestingly, this is not the case. Instead of G-D relating a message to him, the Torah goes on to discuss the visit of the three men (angels). Summing things up, we are left in suspense not knowing why Hashem appeared to Abraham at this time. In addition, most of us take for granted the countless times that Hashem appears to His prophets. We almost never ask ourselves the important question – why. In other words, what preparations did the prophet do in order to merit in the experience the prophetic happening. Could it be that no special preparations are required? Most of our major commentators deal with these questions and I would like to present some of their approaches here.
The Rambam explains that prophecy requires tremendous preparation on part of the person. Only after a person has perfected himself to the highest degree morally and intellectually coupled with overcoming his earthy desires can he attain prophecy. Not to mention the fact that he must be in good physical health and in a state of happiness.
With the exception of Moshe Rabeynu, all prophetic experiences take place through dreams or visions via angels. This is clearly taught to us in the Torah. He said, “Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] Hashem will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of Hashem. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses? Numbers 12:6-8)
We see that only Moshe Rabeynu was on a level that allowed him to enter the prophetic state at will, while completely awake and standing up. All other prophets would have to enter a prophetic trance which would cause them to tremble and fall to the ground. They would then see a vision or fall to sleep and dream. The vision would be marked by an angel appearing to them and relating them a prophetic message through metamorphic imagery. (See The Rambam in his magnum opus, the Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Yesoday Hatorah chapter 7 and in his Guide to the perplexed chapters 36-41 where he elaborates on prophecy and explains the difference between dream and vision)
With this introduction in mind the opening verse is difficult to understand –“and Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot.” Hashem appearing to Abraham while he is sitting at the entrance to his tent seems to contradict the Rambams’s understanding of prophecy. Of course, as far as readiness goes, there is no doubt that Abraham was more than ready. Since he possessed all the unique qualities that were required by a person in order to reach the prophetic level. Nevertheless, we learnt that only Moshe Rabeynu was able to receive prophecy while being awake! If the Torah would have left out the fact that Abraham was sitting at the entrance to his tent then there would be no problem in understanding this event. We would simply assume that Abraham saw the angels in while in a prophetic trance. The fact that the Torah mentions his sitting down creates all the difficulty.
Another question that must be raised – if the men that are mentioned here are angels why are they eating and drinking? There is no way one can deny the fact that they were Divine messengers since their actions prove it. And they said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “Behold in the tent.” And he said, “I will surely return to you at this time next year, and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son.” And Sarah heard from the entrance of the tent, and it was behind him. (Genesis 18:9-10) If they were not angels, they would not be able to guarantee that she will have a son by next year.
In chapter 19 the Torah uses the term angels directly with the definite article “And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom, and Lot saw and arose toward them, and he prostrated himself on his face to the ground. The fact that the Torah uses the expression “the two angels” in implies that it is talking about the known angels – those that were mentioned already in chapter 18. Nevertheless, again in chapter 19 verse three we see that they ate. “And he urged them strongly, and they turned in to him, and came into his house, and he made them a feast, and he baked unleavened cakes, and they ate.” Looking in Judges 13:16 we clearly are taught that angels don’t eat! And the angel of the Lord said to Manoah, “If you take me in I will not eat of your bread, and if you will make a burnt-offering, you must offer it to the Lord;” For Manoah did not know that he was an angel of the Lord.
The Rambam answers all these questions in his famous work the Guide to the Perplexed in part 2 chapter 42. There he explains that this entire event with Abraham and the three angels all took place in a prophetic vision. According to his opinion we must understand the opening verse in this week’s portion “and Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre,” as the opening to Abraham’s prophetic vision. In other words, everything that followed did not take place in the corporeal world but in a vision.
Rashi on the other hand explains the opening verses according to the Midrash and solves all the above problems. Abraham merited in Hashem’s visit not through a normal type of prophecy that would require a prophetic trance, but instead He came to visit him after his circumscription to pay a sick call. One could imagine the great pain it would cause Abraham to fall to the ground and tremble after being circumcised therefore Hashem spared him all this by appearing to him directly.
The Midrash Rabah goes on to explain that the angels acted as if they were eating. When the food would enter their mouths it would disintegrate. All this in order to honor Abraham. In addition, My Lord, in the verse – “My Lord, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant Genesis 18:1-3 as referring to Hashem. Abraham was actually asking G-d not to leave his presence while he went to honor the unexpected guests. In other words, while Hashem was visiting with Abraham, he has a sudden arrival of guests. He therefore asked Hashem to remain with him until he finishes with them. To sum things up, according to the Rashi Abraham experience two different spiritual experiences while being totally awake. One was the visit of Hashem and the other was the visit of the angels.
According to the Rambam, we can’t explain the verses here the way Rashi, in light of the Midrash, does. He writes in his the Mishnah Torah [Hilchot Yisoday Hatorah] chapter 2:3 regarding the third type of creation: “Creations which have form, but no physical matter at all; for example, the angels, for the angels do not possess bodies or corporeal being, but rather are forms which are separate from each other.” In other words, since angels do take on a physical appearance in any way there is no way to understand what happened to Abraham here as an experience of the corporeal world. Instead he chooses to explain everything as a prophetic vision as we mentioned before.
The Ramban (Nahmanides 1194-1270) brings down the interpretation of the Rambam, but does not accept it for a number of reasons. First of all, if this was a vision and not an actual event then the introduction “and Hashem appeared to him” does not match the event described in the vision. The vision focuses on the three men, their meal, and the message about a son to be born to Sarah. Nowhere does it mention how G-D appeared to him or what he said specifically to him. In addition, the Ramban says, we don’t find prophetic visions like this anywhere in the Bible. For example in Genesis 12:7 it says – “And the Lord appeared to Abram, and He said, “To your seed I will give this land,” and there he built an altar to the Lord, Who had appeared to him.” And Genesis 26:24 And the Lord appeared to him on that night and said, “I am the God of Abraham, your father. Fear not, for I am with you, and I will bless you and multiply your seed for the sake of Abraham, My servant.” And in Genesis 35:9 “And God appeared again to Jacob when he came from Padan aram, and He blessed him.”
We see clearly in each of these examples that in this form of introduction it is always followed by a Divine communication with the prophet that G-D appears to. Therefore, the Ramban concludes that this appearance is not connected to the story that follows but is its own event similarly to Rash’s explanation.
He explains that because of the act of doing the mitzvah of circumcision Abraham was rewarded with the resting of the Divine presence upon him. Similarly to Leviticus 23:9 “And Moses and Aaron went into the Tent of Meeting. Then they came out and blessed the people, and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people” Here Hashem rewarded the people of Israel by resting his presence upon them for participating in the Mitzvah of building of the Mishkan.
The Ramban continues to challenge the Rambam’s explanation and says if he is correct then the entire story never took place. Meaning that Sarah didn’t bake cake, Abraham did not prepare meat, and Sarah didn’t laugh. In addition, this would make Lot a prophet in his own right since these are the same angels that came to rescue him and destroy the city of Sodom. Lot’s seeing them can only be explained according to the Rambam as seeing them in a vision; it must mean he is a prophet. Even more astonishing, it would make the evil people that came to Lot’s home also prophets since they were able to see the angels go into Lot’s house. If we try and explain according to the Rambam that Lot saw the evil people of Sodom as part of his vision then Lot would still be in Sodom. Even more so, since the whole purpose of this vision was to reveal to Sarah that she will have a child then 99 percent of the story is superfluous and has no meaning. This would diminish this prophetic vision into something similar to a dream which is full of meaningless things. The Ramban has also difficulty in understanding the Rambam’s interpretation of the angel wrestling with Jacob which he also explains as a vision. If he is right, why did Jacob limp and show fear if it was not a real event in the physical world?
The Ramban explains that there is a difference between prophecy and experiencing a vision of an Angel. The book of Daniel is not part of the prophets but instead it is part of the scriptures because it is not on the same level as prophecy. And on the twenty-fourth day of the first month, when I was beside the great river, the Tigris. And his body was like tarshish, and his face was like the appearance of lightning, and his eyes were like firebrands, and his arms and his legs were like the appearance of brandished copper, and the sound of his words was like the voice of a multitude. And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision, but the men who were with me did not see the vision, but a great quaking fell upon them, and they fled into hiding. But I remained alone, and I saw this great vision, and no strength was left within me, and my complexion was turned in me into corruption, and I could not summon up strength. Then I heard the voice of his words, and when I heard the voice of his words, I fell into a sound sleep on my face, and my face was to the ground. Daniel 10:4-10.
The Ramban agrees that the normal communication with angels is through a vision. But it is not on the same level as prophecy and therefore Daniel was able to see the vision without special preparation and while awake at first. The same applies to Hagar that experienced the angel And an angel of the Lord found her by a water fountain in the desert, by the fountain on the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, Sarai’s servant, where are you coming from, and where are you going to?” And she said, “From before Sarai my mistress, I am fleeing.” (Genesis 16:7-9). Although she experienced and angelic vision we surely can’t put Hagar on the level of prophecy.
The Ramban elaborates that there are two types of angelic experiences both are not prophecy but a higher level of consciousness. The first type is called “Geluyee Eynaim” meaning revealing to one’s eyes. At certain times Hashem allows one while being awake to see visions of angels. Although it is a higher level of communication it is not yet prophecy. This is what the Torah is referring to in Numbers 22:31 “The Lord opened Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a sword drawn in his hand. He bowed and prostrated himself on his face.” This is what Hagar, and Daniel experienced as we mentioned above. The next level is what the Ramban calls “Kvod Nivrha Bimalachim”. This literally means “honor created in angels”. This is a higher level of an angelic appearance where an angel enters a seemingly physical form of existence but it can only be seen by holy and super righteous people. It is still not prophecy but it is a very high level of clairvoyance approaching prophecy. The Torah hints to this level when it describes the angels as men. Although in both cases the one experiencing the angel are awake, the difference between this level and the other one is that here it is not a vision but a real corporeal appearance of an angel. To sum things up, Abraham experienced this type of revelation.
After relating all this one may ask why don’t see angels appearing on a regular basis as in the days of old. Some say this is because we are the product of modern western culture that is not tuned into spiritual reality as the previous generations were.
Nevertheless, if you think about it, we are told of many stories of people being saved by what they believed to be regular individuals. However, when they tried to track them down they were not able to find them. One of my Rabbis, Harav Gnatt ZTZL, told me how he and his wife were saved in the holocaust by angels.
As Jews it is our custom to sing on Friday night the famous Shalom Aleichem song to welcome the angels that are escorting us home from the synagogue. Let us pray to Hashem that He opens our eyes and begin to reveal the magnificent spiritual world that is all around us. “Uncover my eyes and I shall look at hidden things from Your Torah.”