“Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance of the tent when the day was hot. And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw, and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground.” (Genesis 18:1-2)
Avraham, just a few days post-circumcision, waits outside his tent eager to find guests to invite into his home. The Ish Ha’Chessed, this man who embodies kindness and selflessness, cannot focus on his own pain and discomfort, rather he seeks to transcend his personal circumstances in an effort to give to others. Alas, there are no guests to be found. It is hot and all have sought shelter from the blistering sun. God summons three angels and Avraham runs to greet them. But these angels are not simply sent to allow Avraham to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim (hospitality); they each have a mission. One angel is sent to announce the birth of Yitzchak, another to heal Avraham and one to destroy the city of Sodom. Why couldn’t God simply send one angel to accomplish all three tasks? Rashi explains, “for one angel cannot perform multiple tasks.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) makes a subtle, yet profound observation. Herein lies the fundamental distinction between man and angel. An angel can only do one thing. An angel can only have one mission and when it finishes that mission, its existence is complete. An angel can’t pivot or change. An angel can’t decide to do something different than the intended purpose for which it was created. “One angel cannot perform multiple tasks or agencies” – why? Because angels are incapable of transformation. Their existence, while exalted and holy, is one-dimensional and limited. But we can change, we can pivot. We can embark down one path in life and upon realizing that it is incorrect can change course. We can make mistakes and then correct them. We can begin one task then choose to do and to be something else. Angels are holy but we are even holier.
There are times when we realize that something is broken or flawed within us. I know that there are things I must change, but I soothe myself with the excuse of “this is who I am.” From the words of the Rebbe we see that only angels can use that excuse, man cannot. Angels can say “this is who I am” for they are truly limited, one-dimensional beings who can only perform the particular task for which they were created. But we can be who we choose to be. We can change, transform, reinvent, and remake. Unlike angels we must face adversity and challenge and at times as a result of our life difficulties we become hardened and resistant to change. Let us remember, God had to send three angels to accomplish three distinct tasks, yet one Avraham Avinu was able to effect so much change all on his own.
The power of change is an awesome gift, may we find the courage and strength to use it wisely.
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Rabbi Levi said, when Avraham was travelling in Aram Naharaim, he saw people eating, drinking and engaging in a hedonistic lifestyle. Avraham said, “I do not want a portion in this land.” When he came to the mountains of Tzur (and peered into the Land of Israel) he saw people pruning and plowing. He said, “I truly hope I receive a portion in this land.” God then said to Avraham, “I have given this land to your offspring.” (Midrash Rabbah 39:8)
Rav Kalonymos Kalman haLevi Epstein (1751-1823), in his work titled Maor V’Shemesh, provides an incredible insight into this midrash. Avraham was wandering the world looking for meaning. He was looking for answers to the questions which filled his soul. How do I find greatness? What is my purpose? He looked around and saw people focused on momentary, fleeting pleasures. Eating good food and drinking fine wine is wonderful as long as it doesn’t become the centerpiece of existence. And so, he traveled on, looking for meaning. Avraham came to the Land of Israel. When he gazed upon the land from the surrounding mountains, he saw farmers pruning and planting. In this moment, Avraham had the life epiphany he had been waiting for. Man is like the field. A field needs to be plowed for beautiful vegetation to grow. So too, man must plow his personalistic field with Torah, mitzvos, chesed and dynamic spiritual activity in order to create the beautiful fruit of holy identity. Meaningful living requires us to engage in constant and consistent plowing. But you can only plant if the weeds are first removed from the field.
There are two dimensions to the weeds of life. The weeds represent the negative traits, behaviors and aspects of our life-style. We can ignore the weeds, but they won’t go away. We can try to look away, but they will just grow taller. To really engage in meaningful and dynamic spiritual plowing we must first remove the weeds that stand in our way. It is difficult and often unpleasant to remove the weeds of life but failure to do so renders the field of potential accomplishment un-useable.
There is another dynamic as well. Sometimes, the things we plant don’t “grow” as we had expected. Although, I used the right seed, provided water, sunlight and nutrients, the plant just didn’t take. It is in those moments that I must prune and uproot the non-viable plant in order to clear the field for something better. There are times in life when we “plant” an initiative, idea or course of action and it just doesn’t take root. Don’t be afraid to start again. Don’t be afraid to pull out the plant despite having spent so much time and energy in planting it. Pruning is an indispensable part of personal growth. There are some things we will do that will work and others that will fail. Don’t let the failed attempts sit and wither in your field. Bend down, prune, pull out the failed plant and start again. Starting again can be frightening and fraught with anxiety but if we want to maximize the productivity of our fieldw, it is a necessity.
We must remove the weeds that hold us back and remove the growths which have failed to mature and materialize. It is only when we clear the field of the failed growth and weeds that we can plant something beautiful.
Avraham wandered looking for meaning and answers. The answers he found are the ones which guide us to this very day. Life is all about pruning and planting. God has given each of us beautiful fields of potential and it is our privilege to farm them properly.
Life Lessons from the Weekly Parsha – A Women’s Shiur.
“When Noach left the ark, he fell to his knees and began to sob upon seeing the complete destruction of the world. He turned to God and said, ‘Master of the Universe, where was Your compassion, where was Your mercy? You should have exhibited greater compassion to Your creations?’ God responded, ‘Foolish shepherd, when I told you to build the ark, you should have advocated for humanity. When I told you that you were righteous, I was telling you that you had the power to make a difference. Yet, when it began to rain, you entered the ark with your family and closed the door on humanity. And now you ask about my lack of compassion?’” (Zohar, Noach 39:1)
A powerful conversation: Noach wondering what happened to the compassion of God and God wondering what happened to the compassion of Noach. There are many sources which highlight Noach’s lack of advocacy for his generation. It is easy to categorize Noach as self-centered and lacking compassion for the plight of the other. But this approach has always bothered me. After all, the Torah calls Noach a Tzaddik, a righteous man, a term that neither God nor the Torah use lightly. If so, how do we understand Noach’s behavior? Why didn’t he try to save the generation and lobby God on their behalf? Why didn’t he try to intercede and prevent the cataclysmic destruction of humanity?
The great Chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) provides an incredible insight:
“Noach was completely righteous, he did not comprehend the ability to leave his righteous state, engage with the wicked and raise them up. He did not understand his ability to pray for them, help them discover their spark of goodness and holiness and allow them to rebuild.” (Likutei Halachos, Shabbos 7:69)
Noach didn’t believe in change. Noach thought that the world had two different types of people – the righteous and the wicked. Once you chose a team, you had a lifetime contract. When Noach looked at his wicked neighbors he saw people who were broken beyond repair. Their only hope would have been God’s mercy and compassion. When God told him to build the ark, for He was going to destroy the world, Noach said “ok.” There was nothing to do, only God could save the day. And so, upon disembarking from the ark, Noach wags an accusatory finger at God and asks, “Where was your mercy?” God proceeds to explain to Noach his profound mistake. “People make bad choices and at times do terrible things, but they never lose the ability to change. Noach, had you believed in humanity’s capacity for change you could have gone out to the masses and taught them the error of their ways and the path to salvation. You could have inspired them and encouraged them to be more. But you didn’t. I told you of My plans, you accepted My words, built the ark and closed the door behind you.”
The Rebbe provides us a powerful perspective on the Parsha and on life. Noach was a pious and righteous man who didn’t understand the profound, cathartic power of change. At times, we too make the same mistake, assuming that who we are is who we will always be. Change is the most incredible gift given to us by God Himself. The ability to invent and reinvent oneself as many times as needed is a treasure, privilege and obligation. Humanity was lost because no one believed in the power of change. We must learn this lesson and remember that we each have the power to transform. Whether one need to change a behavior, a perspective, a relationship or a way of life – the power rests in our hands. May we find the courage and strength to use it wisely.