It should remain clear that the Torah was written purposefully and very successfully to; inter alia provoke discussion, which leads to more discussion and continual interpretations. In that regard, it has been very successful. These discussions can at times elucidate the distinct schools of thought relating to the interpretations of the words used in the text and the different frames of reference. Moreover, the narratives the Torah has chosen to include provide a fulsome framework for such expositions.
This week’s Parsha VaYera reflects that proposition. Firstly, it contains the narrative of the Akedah, which on its own is the most studied of all the Torah’s narratives, with its dark imagery and attempts to define complete faith in God. But, it also contains two other narratives of equal import and weight: the destruction of Sodom, and the birth of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael.
One element which is common to these narratives is the appearance of angels. Angels are identified a number of ways in the Torah: as “men”, as “messengers” or as “Lords”. It is understood that it was angels that; warned Lot about the upcoming destruction of Sodom; saved Hagar and Ishmael from death in the desert; and stayed Abraham’s arm before he brought the blade across Isaac’s neck.
Angels in the Torah are either passive instruments of communication or active protagonists reflecting the power of God. They are incorporeal spirits projecting voice but not possessed of any physical dimension. The prophets; Isaiah, Daniel and Zechariah depict them as healers and warriors, and as direct interlocutors with God, pleading that God be merciful towards the Children of Israel. However, there is no direct explanation in the Torah for what they are or where they came from other than they are clearly superior to men but subordinate to God.
The first narrative of Parsha VaYera tells of Abraham seeing three men walking across the plain and welcoming them, strangers to him, in to the comforts of his camp. These “men” have been identified as angels, each of whom was tasked with a different mission by God. One was to heal the freshly circumcised Abraham, another was sent to communicate to Sarah the upcoming birth of a son, and one was to act on behalf of God and destroy Sodom. The Torah records that they shared a meal with their host: “And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat”. This simple vignette raise some very perplexing issues: how can angels be seen, and, how could they eat. The explanation demonstrates the different viewpoints of Maimonides (the Rambam), the rationalist, and the more conservative, and at times mystical, Nahmanides (the Ramban).
The Rambam chose to describe this event as a prophetic vision of Abraham’s, not an actual event in the real world. In this episode of revelation, Abraham saw three very ordinary men with whom he shared a very ordinary meal (the issue of the menu which is a mix of milk and meat is an altogether different challenge). If they were indeed angels, they could not be seen, nor, was it possible for them to have shared a meal. The Ramban, in one of his sharpest rejoinders of the Rambam, rejected his entire approach, and opined that the details of the narrative would be meaningless if they never really happened. Rambam’s approach, he said, was akin to heresy: “These words contradict Scripture. It is forbidden to hear them or believe them”.
These entirely different approaches are also found in their completely different views on the afterlife. According to the Rambam, the afterlife is a spiritual construct, which shelters “the souls of the righteous without bodies, like angels.” However, according to the Ramban, even the afterlife includes physical human existence. Holiness exists both above and below. Therefore, angels can also attain physical existence in this world and interact directly and physically with people.
It is through reading the words of the Torah that we can gain knowledge into the history of a people, progressives of their day; it is through the commentators that we can achieve an insight into the dynamic recorded therein. It is through the study of the commentators that we gain an understanding of those words used to describe the events memorialized in the text, and most importantly, their own words.