(A very neat painting of Abram and the Three Angels by Josse Lieferinxe between 1493–1503/08)
In the Torah portion for this week, we see one of the most interesting encounters in Abram’s life. The text tell us,
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃
2 וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃
3 וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֙א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃
4 יֻקַּֽח־נָ֣א מְעַט־מַ֔יִם וְרַחֲצ֖וּ רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִֽשָּׁעֲנ֖וּ תַּ֥חַת הָעֵֽץ׃
“The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.
2 Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground,
3 he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.
4 Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.
We don’t know who these guests are but our tradition tells us that these were God’s angels. The midrash tells us that this event was the setting of the stage for some future events of the Jewish people. They taught that as Abraham offered water, so God offered water in the Wilderness. As Abraham offered bread to his guests, so God gave bread to the Jewish people in the Desert in the form of manna. And, as Abraham offered his guests a tree to cool themselves, so did God provide shade in the Wilderness. So far, so good.
Except that there is another tradition in the Talmud that says that the three things, water, bread and shade, were not provided because of Abraham’s angels but rather because of the merit of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. The Talmud teaches, “And because of them, three excellent gifts were bestowed upon Israel…” But this is a problem.
Which is right? Did the Jewish people merit the gifts of water, bread and shelter because of Abraham or because of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam? How can this be?
A turn of the 20th-Century rabbi taught a very insightful idea that harmonizes the conflicting traditions and teaches a lesson. He offers the following analogy: “A huge tree may grow from a small seed, but only if the seed is implanted in the earth, and then provided with water and sunlight. It is the combination of all these elements that allows a tree to sprout. The ‘seeds’ from which the manna, the pillar of cloud and the well which sprouted were indeed Abraham’s act of kindness. However, it was the ‘nutrients’ provided by the merits of Moses, Aaron and Miriam that ultimately caused those seeds to blossom as they did into wondrous resources for the Jewish people.”
This teaching harmonizes the conflicting traditions but it also teaches us a powerful lesson and it is this: how true it is that every small act, every seemingly insignificant act like offering a glass a water, a piece of bread or a place of shade may give birth to a seed that has within it the potential and possibility to grow, to germinate and to flower inside a tsaddik, a righteous person who can change the world.
This is a Jewish challenge. We do not perform acts of goodness and righteousness to get into heaven or to avoid hell. More often than not our acts of goodness seem to simply vanish into the void never to be seen again and without any reflection back to us that our righteousness made any difference. But this is a wrong way of looking at it.
The tradition is that what we do does make a difference even if we can’t see it. Any teacher knows it. Students from decades before come and tell you how you made difference with the right question, the right piece of advice or the right moment of listening. A camp counselor can tell you the same stories. But so can anyone who can turn any moment into a moment of profound change. We may not see but doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. It has. And in that planting of the seed is where our faith lies.