As Avraham enters into the covenant, he circumcises himself in his old age. The first we learn of him afterward, the first act by the first religious person, is that as he recuperated in the blazing heat, he looked for guests:
וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם – God appeared to him in Mamre, while he was sitting at the door in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men approaching; and he ran towards them. (18:1-2)
They were no ordinary guests. It turns out that they were angels, on a mission, who anticipated the birth of Yitzchak. Avraham then has an encounter with God, in which God tells him a secret. The nature of the revelation and the circumstances behind it lend massive insight into what it means to be a religious person. God thought about telling Avraham His plans:
וַהֹ אָמָר הַמֲכַסֶּה אֲנִי מֵאַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי עֹשֶׂה. אַבְרָהָם הָיוֹ יִהְיֶה לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְעָצוּם וְנִבְרְכוּ בוֹ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ. כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהֹוָה לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא יְהֹוָה עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו – God said, “Shall I hide what I am doing from Avraham? Avraham will be great, and through him the world will be blessed. I know he instructs his children, and their children after them, to preserve the way of God; to do what is right and practice justice…” (18:17-19)
Hashem chooses to share His plans with Avraham, and says why – because he will be great and teaches his descendants what is right.
Rav Hirsch boldly asks that Avraham, of all people, does not need to be instructed to avoid the ways of Sdom! The setting is anathema to everything Sdom stood for. A tired, injured old man desperately looking for travellers to feed, bathe, and take care of. That man does not need to be warned not to be like Sdom!
So why warn him if he was above it?
Rav Hirsch teaches that the warning was for בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו – his descendants; to draw the contrast. Avraham at his lowest and worst is the perfect picture to imagine when we think about how to be. Sdom was a vibrant, wealthy and successful commercial centre; Avraham was haggard and weary at that point in his life. Sdom was busy with the things Sdom was about, whereas our ancestor was busy with the things he was about. Contrast those images.
Rav Hirsch emphasises how this is the very first lesson we learn after circumcision and the covenant – the mark that sets us apart. H wa’s in Mamre, land belonging to his old friends and allies. Yet he was out looking for pagan idolators to entertain; there was no-one else he could expect! He gave his mysterious guests incredible luxury, freshly prepared.
That is the first encounter the world has with people of the covenant.
Avraham himself was overjoyed that people would not think he was strange or different. His relationship with greater mankind was only enhanced.
The descendants of Avraham are charged with being the most humane of men. Not just as a contrast, but as a beacon as well. A beacon for a better way to be; with open hearts, and open hands.
Avraham’s ultimate test of faith was Akeidas Yitzchak. The way we teach children, the challenge was to overcome his attachment to his son, even though this very same son was supposed to be heir to the covenant.
The Ran explains that there is a major subtlety into what was asked of Avraham. Hashem says: קַח-נָא אֶת-בִּנְךָ אֶת-יְחִידְךָ אֲשֶׁר-אָהַבְתָּ, אֶת-יִצְחָק, וְלֶךְ-לְךָ, אֶל-אֶרֶץ הַמֹּרִיָּה; וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם, לְעֹלָה – Please take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go, for yourself, to the land of Moriah, and sacrifice him, as a burnt offering. (22:2).
The Ran points out that Hashem said קַח-נָא – “please take”. This was a request. It was not an instruction. It is quite possible that if Avraham had refused, he would not have violated Hashem word, as Hashem did not require it, and Avraham did not “need” to go through with it. It remained Avraham’s choice.
The Slonimer Rebbe adds a further dimension to the turmoil he faced. As Avraham approached the mountain:
וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham lifted his eyes, and saw הַמָּקוֹם from a distance. (22:4)
Classically, this means that he literally “saw the place”. But הַמָּקוֹם is also a name of Hashem – He is “The Place”, He is everywhere, the Omnipresent.
In this context, וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת-עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק means that Avraham looked at the situation he was in, what he was about to do, and felt a distance between himself and Hashem. Avraham was doing what Hashem had requested, but he knew that what he was doing did not feel right. It tore him apart – he’d spent his entire life up to that point fighting human sacrifice, and yet here he was, about to sacrifice his son, throwing away his entire future. וַיַּרְא אֶת-הַמָּקוֹם–מֵרָחֹק – Avraham felt a distance between himself and Hashem.
At the crescendo, the Torah records that וַיִּשְׁלַח אַבְרָהָם אֶת-יָדוֹ, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הַמַּאֲכֶלֶת, לִשְׁחֹט, אֶת-בְּנוֹ – Avraham sent his hand, and picked up the blade, to slaughter his son. The Torah doesn’t say that “He picked up the knife,”; but that he “sent his hand”. There is a disembodiment, dissociating his hands action from him. He could not believe what he was forcing himself to do!
We read this on Rosh Hashana, and apart from the obvious merit the story recalls, perhaps we can relate to this on a personal level. Things aren’t always clear cut what the right thing to do is. We don’t always “feel it”. Even the greatest of us was torn once.