Parshat Vayera: One Mission per Malach

“And he lifted his eyes and he saw that three men were standing before him. And he saw and he ran from the opening of his tent to greet them. And he bowed towards the ground”. (Beresheit 18:2)

Hashem sends three messengers to Avraham. Rashi refers to these messengers as malachim – angels. He explains that an individual malach – angel – can only have a single mission. Each of these malachim has a unique assignment. In this instance, one was assigned the responsibility of healing Avraham from his recent milah – circumcision. Another was to tell Avraham that Sara would soon bare him a son – Yitzchak. A third malach would tell Avraham of the coming destruction of Sedom.

After fulfilling his responsibility, the angel that foretold the birth of Yitzchak left Avraham and the others. His job was done. The remaining two messengers proceeded to Sedom. The one who told Avraham of the fate of Sedom would now destroy the city. The other angel would rescue Lote.

Rashi acknowledges that this second angel’s responsibility presents a problem. An individual angel can only be assigned a single mission. This second angel seems to have performed two tasks. He fulfilled his first mission in the presence of Avraham. He would now execute a second responsibility. He would save Lote.

Rashi responds that this second angel was the messenger that had previously healed Avraham. He further explains that this does not violate the principle of assigning a single task to an individual angel. Both tasks involve salvation. Because of this common feature, a single angel could perform both tasks.[1]

Rashi’s comments present two problems. First, he never seems to answer his question. He concludes that one angel did perform two tasks. Rashi argues that because these two tasks are related, the question is somehow answered. However, the relationship seems rather artificial. Rashi describes both missions as acts of salvation. The rescue of Lote was a true act of salvation. However, the healing of Avraham was an act of salvation in only a figurative sense. Avraham was saved from additional physical pain.

Second, why does Rashi insist that the dual responsibility fell to angel that healed Avraham? There is another candidate for two tasks. This is the angel that foretold Yitzchak’s birth. Why could this angel not be assigned the task of saving Yitzchak? It seems that these two responsibilities could also be characterized under the general heading of salvation. We know that Avraham was deeply concerned with having children. This angel relieved Avraham of this anxiety. This is also a form of salvation.

In order to answer these questions, we must understand Rashi’s comments at a deeper level. We need to explain the Rashi’s basic principle. An individual angel can have only a single responsibility.

It seems that Rashi maintains that each angel or messenger represents a different theme within Divine providence. Each expresses a unique objective. The various themes are identified by associating each with a different messenger. This understanding of Rashi’s principle suggests an approach to answering our questions. Apparently, Rashi maintains that the healing of Avraham and the saving of Lote are manifestations of a single theme within providence. In order to understand the relationship between these two tasks, we must identify the themes represented by the angels.

One theme is easy to identify. Providence is sometimes an expression of Divine justice. This theme is represented by the malach that destroyed Sedom. The other two themes are more difficult to differentiate. The remaining two angels seem to have had similar objectives. They were expressions of the Almighty’s kindness to Avraham. One healed Avraham the other foretold Yitzchak’s birth. What are the different themes these malachim represent?

Rashi explains earlier that the world was created with a specific objective. The Almighty wished to create a world that would embody and give expression to the Torah.[2] Avraham was chosen to be the progenitor of the nation that would receive the Torah. He served as the instrument for the fulfillment of the Creator’s plan. Granting a child to Avraham, was an expression of the Divine plan to create a sacred nation. We can now identify the theme represented by the angel that foretold Yitzchak’s birth. He was an expression of the Divine design to create of world embodying Torah.

The theme represented the angel that healed Avraham can now be distinguished. This malach represents the providence that Hashem grants the righteous. The healing of Avraham was not an expression of Divine justice. It was not part of the Almighty’s design for His world. This healing was simply a kindness performed for the righteous.

It is now clear that the malach that healed Avraham was the appropriate angel to save Lote. Lote’s salvation was also an act of kindness performed on behalf of Avraham. It is appropriate that the healing angel should perform this task. He represents the theme of the Almighty’s providence over the righteous.

“And he hesitated. And the men seized him, his wife and his two daughters because of the compassion of Hashem for him. And they left him outside of the city.” (Beresheit 19:16)

The melachim reveal to Lote their mission. They urge him to gather his family and flee Sedom. Lote hesitates. The melachim seize Lote, his wife and daughters. They deposit them outside of Sedom.

The general impression created by the messenger’s urgency is that they had limited control over the destruction destined for Sedom. Therefore, they insisted that Lote act quickly. The melachim could not delay the unfolding events.

This explains an odd event earlier in the parasha. In the beginning of the parasha these messengers, accompanied by a third messenger, visit Avraham. Avraham and Sara are told that they will have a son Yitzchak. The melachim then leave Avraham’s home. He accompanies them. The messengers gaze upon Sedom. Suddenly, Avraham has a prophecy. The Almighty reveals to Avraham that He will destroy Sedom. This leads into an involved discussion in which Avraham beseeches Hashem to spare Sedom.

Rabbaynu Nissim asks an interesting question. Avraham received this prophecy while standing on the road. Hashem did not wait for Avraham to return home. Why did this prophecy come to Avraham at this odd location?

Rabbaynu Nissim provides a response based upon a teaching of the Sages quoted by Rashi. The Torah tells us that the messengers looked out upon Sedom. The term used is vayashkifu. Rashi explains that this term means to look out. However, it has a specific implication. It implies a negative outcome. In the context of our pasuk, the gaze of the melachim, upon Sedom, indicates impending disaster.

What is the connection between the gaze of the messengers and destruction of Sedom? Rabbaynu Nissim explains that the gaze is not merely a harbinger foretelling disaster. It is the initiation of the destruction. In other words, through looking out upon Sedom the destruction was initiated.

This explains Avraham’s sudden prophecy. The process leading to Sedom’s destruction was initiated the moment the messengers looked upon the city. The Almighty wished to provide Avraham an opportunity to appeal for mercy. Little time remained for Avraham to act. Therefore, Hashem spoke to Avraham immediately after the messengers initiated the destruction of Sedom.[3]

We can now explain the haste of the melachim to evacuate Lote. How did their gaze initiate the destruction of the city? It seems that Sedom was not destroyed through a sudden, completely unnatural cataclysm. The destruction of Sedom was brought about through a manipulation of nature. Once the causes precipitating this cataclysm were initiated, they preceded in a chain of natural cause and effect to their inevitable end. This manipulation of nature began with the messengers looking upon Sedom. Once this manipulation was initiated, the messengers had limited ability to alter or delay the outcome. This explains their urgency in dealing with Lote. Sedom’s destiny was decided and inevitable. It was crucial for Lote to escape before the destruction befell the city.

“And Avraham rebuked Avimelech over the well that his servants had stolen”. (Bereshit 21:25)

Avimelech the king of Gerar comes to Avraham. He wishes to establish a covenant with Avraham. Avimelech has seen that Avraham enjoys the providence of the Almighty. He wants to be sure that his descendants and Avraham’s will live in peace.

Avraham agrees to the covenant. Suddenly, Avraham raises a seemingly unrelated issue. Avraham had developed a well. Avimelech’s servants had forced Avraham to abandon the well and taken control of this resource. Avraham rebuked Avimelech for allowing this theft to occur in his kingdom. Avimelech responded that he was unaware of the crime. He should not be held accountable for this wrongdoing. Avraham apparently accepts this explanation and completes the covenant.

Avraham’s actions are difficult to understand. First, he agrees to the covenant. However, he does not enter into the agreement immediately. He rebukes Avimelech. After the rebuke, he completes the covenant. It seems that the incident of the well deeply concerned Avraham. He had misgivings regarding Avimelech’s honesty. He should have questioned Avimelech before agreeing to the covenant! Once Avraham had agreed to the covenent, why did he question Avimelech’s actions?

Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam offers an interesting response. He explains that Avraham had agreed to enter into a covenant of peace. This action implied that Avraham did not bear any animosity toward Avimelech. However, Avraham realized that at this point such an agreement would be misleading. He did have grave concerns over Avimelech’s honesty. The agreement to enter into the covenant required that these issues be resolved.

Now Avraham’s behavior is understood. He did not seek out Avimelech. However, once he agreed to a covenant, he felt obligated to reveal his true concerns. After the concerns were addressed to Avraham’s satisfaction he was willing to complete the agreement. Now the covenant would honestly reflect Avraham’s attitude.[4]

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[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 18:2.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 2:1.

[3] Rabbaynu Nissim ben Reuven Gerondi (Ran), Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 18:16.

[4] Rabbaynu Avraham ben HaRambam, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit 21:25.