The Secret of Righteousness

Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Headshot of Rabbi Aryeh Cohen
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

Professor, Rabbinic Literature
Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies

posted on October 20, 1985
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

So how did Abraham become Abraham? How did Sarah become Sarah? We know that both Abraham and Sarah were "human, all too human." Their faults are on prominent display in this week's Torah portion. Abraham hides behind Sarah when they go down to Gerar, in order to save himself. Sarah demands that Hagar, the maidservant, mother of Abraham's first child (at Sarah's behest), be banished-and Abraham acquiesces to Sarah's demand. As a result of the expulsion Hagar and Ishmael almost die. Finally, Abraham almost slays Isaac on the altar.

Yet, God says about Abraham: "For Abraham will surely be a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth will be blessed through him. For I have embraced him so that he will charge his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring upon Abraham all that He spoke concerning him." How did God know? Well, yeah, sure God is God and all. However, what did Abraham do that showed that he had this future in which he would "do righteousness and justice."

Abraham is usually remembered as the person who first recognized God. The midrash (Genesis Rabbah) tells a story about Abraham smashing all the idols in his father Terach's idol store and then engaging in religious polemics with the king, Nimrod, when Terach hauls the impertinent Abraham before the court. This story is repeated with more philosophical fanfare in Maimonides' legal code, Mishneh Torah.

This is all well and good. However, there is a small and easily overlooked story at the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Genesis 18: 1-8) which, it seems to me, holds the key to the mystery and the righteousness of Abraham and Sarah.

1. And the Lord appeared to him in the Terebinths of Mamre when he was sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day. 2. And he raised his eyes and saw, and, look three men were standing before him. He saw, and ran toward them from the tent flap and bowed to the ground. 3. And he said, "My lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant. 4. Let a little water be fetched and bathe your feet and stretch out under the tree, 5. and let me fetch a morsel bread, and refresh yourselves. Then you may go on, for have you not come by your servant?" And they said, "Do as you have spoken." 6. And Abraham hurried to the tent to Sarah and he said: "Hurry! Knead three seahs of choice semolina flour and make loaves." 7. And to the herd Abraham ran and fetched a tender and goodly calf and gave it to the lad, who hurried to prepare it. 8. And he fetched curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and he set these before them, he standing over them under the tree, and they ate.

Now, the commentators point out that Abraham was healing from the circumcision that he had just undergone together with Ishmael. According to the Talmud, God appeared to Abraham as an act of "visiting the sick," comforting Abraham in his pain. During this Divine visit, Abraham sees three travelers. Three people that he does not know who appear as he is visiting with God. Here's where the story gets interesting.

Abraham runs out to meet the three strangers. He does not even give God a "by your leave" or an "excuse me just one moment." Abraham, in pain, dashes off to the three men. He then addresses them as one, in the singular: "My lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant." This is the translation of Robert Alter. However, the phrase "my lord" translated with a small "l" to signify that the address is an honorific for a human, and not a divine address, is open to debate. The same exact word can be translated as "my Lord"-as it is in some of the ancient translations (especially the Aramaic translations).

One reason that is offered as to why Abraham speaks in the singular is that he is addressing only the leader of the three, the most important of them. Rashi, the great Northern French commentator (died in 1106) says just this. A century later in Spain, Nachmanides claims that Abraham knew they were angels and therefore addressed them with a Divine name.

I want to suggest a third way. Both Rashi and Nachmanides are right. Both the ancient Aramaic translations and the ancient Greek translations are right. Robert Alter is also right. (Insert appropriate Jewish joke here.)

Abraham looked up from his conversation with God and saw three people approaching. He did not know them, nor did he know that they were angels on a Divine mission. However, as was his wont, he approached them from a stance of subservience. We would not expect Abraham to challenge the strangers in the manner of Western rangers guarding their lands, but we might expect him to inquire after them. "Who are you?" "What do you want?" (The angel thus inquired of Hagar in last week's portion.) However, Abraham does not do this at all. He runs to greet them and bows low to them as if they were angels or God. He speaks to them as if they are Divine. Abraham's behavior makes the strong statement that strangers have a claim on us. It is not ours to question them, but to respond to their need, their vulnerabilities.

Abraham sees wanderers and from the vantage point of his tent he recognizes that they are in need of food and water and so his first action is to respond to their need. He places himself at their service. Abraham then recruits Sarah to his response team (by this time, God is forgotten in a corner somewhere). Sarah, not a shy woman by any stretch of the imagination, as we see in both last week's and this week's Torah portions, immediately and unquestioningly joins in creating a humane response to the travelers. Sarah prepares the bread as Abraham prepares the meat.

It is this knowledge that Abraham will transmit to his children beyond any of the other flaws and failures. My engagement with another person has to start as a response to their needs. "My lord/my Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant." Abraham recognized that every other person is just like God in that they are beyond our complete grasp and that therefore the only moral action we do is to respond to their need. Let us truly be children of Abraham.

Shabbat shalom.