Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 31 October 2015 / 18 Heshvan 5776

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The beginning of this Parsha describes Avraham’s interaction with three men who are referred to as ‘Malachim’, a word that is commonly translated as ‘angels’, or messengers of G-d, who are sent to perform a particular task.

It is difficult to describe this encounter in terms of a normal prophetic experience during which the prophet is either asleep or in some other semi-conscious state. Here, Avraham was clearly fully awake. They also end up interacting with Lot in Sodom and it is clear that Lot was not a prophet like Avraham.

In order to explain this unusual interaction, Abarbanel notes that the commentators fall into two categories. Ibn Ezra and Ralbag are among those who say that the Malachim were actual men sent by G-d. Others, including Rashi, Ramban and Rashbam, describe them as spiritual entities, which were miraculously provided with a physical human body.

Abarbanel strongly objects to the first explanation. At that point in time Avraham was the world’s sole prophet. If there were others on his level, why weren’t they commanded in the mitzvah of brit mila as well? Additionally, one of the men said to Avraham, “I will return to you”. If he was a human prophet he would have said, “And G-d says that I will return to you.” No prophet can predict a future event on his own. The fact that they inflicted blindness on the men of Sodom is also an indication that they were not human, as no mere mortal can perform such a miraculous act.

Abarbanel also has difficulty with the second possibility, that they were spiritual entities somehow given human form and substance. Where did this material come from? Was it created out of nothing, like the original universe, or from some other primordial substance, like Adam, the first man? What happens to this substance when these spiritual entities divest themselves of their material shells? Wouldn’t we be able to find this material lying around somewhere? Abarbanel also dismisses the idea that these spiritual entities were composed of some ethereal element that could condense into human form and then return to its previous ethereal state. Whether they were actual physical bodies or some sort of condensed matter, everyone should have been able to see them, which clearly was not the case. Abarbanel proves his point from the story of Elisha in Melachim II (6:17) and Daniel (10:7). In both of these narratives the prophets Elisha and Daniel were able to see a Malach when others could not.

As a result of these questions Abarbanel has a radically different understanding of the nature of these Malachim. Whether we are referring to the narratives of Avraham and Lot or Elisha and Daniel, all of them perceived ‘men’ who did not really exist at all. What they saw was not a result of the delirium which sometimes accompanies serious illnesses like malaria. Rather, G-d caused them to see something that didn’t exist at all physically when they were healthy, awake and engaged in normal activity. When Elisha asks that G-d should open his disciple’s eyes, he is asking G-d to allow him to see something that doesn’t really exist. Similarly, Bilaam’s donkey saw the Malach, while Bilaam did not. In all these cases G-d wanted only certain individuals to interact with the Malach, for reasons specific to each case. The miracle was the fact that G-d caused something that did not exist at all to be perceived by only selected individuals.

In summary, G-d did not send three men to speak to Avraham, nor did he transform spiritual entities into physical beings. Rather He created the perception in someone’s mind of an entire interaction that did not physically exist at all.

(Translator’s footnote: From a contemporary psychiatric perspective, it is well known that there are many examples of physically healthy, functioning and highly intelligent individuals who hallucinate people, objects, sounds and even interactions that exist only in their minds. They are not the result of delirium brought on by physical disease.)

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