“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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Even the pious Avraham Avinu could not sway God to forgive the people of Sodom. They had become so depraved, immoral and unholy that God felt compelled to destroy the cities. But all was not lost. Lot and his family were whisked out of the city by guardian angles and given the opportunity to begin life anew. As they were readying themselves to take leave of Sodom, the angel outlines a simple set of instructions:
And it came to pass, when they took them outside, that he said, “Flee for your life, do not look behind you, and do not stand in the entire plain. Flee to the mountain, lest you perish.” (Bereishis 19:17)
Lot and his daughters complied, but his wife Iris did not.
“And the Lord caused to rain down upon Sodom and Gomorrah brimstone and fire, from the Lord, from heaven. And He turned over these cities and the entire plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and the vegetation of the ground. And his wife looked from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.” (Bereishis 19:24-26)
The commentaries spend much time analyzing why Iris became a pillar of salt. It is clear that she violated the angelic directive but why was this the punishment? Rashi and others understand this punishment to reflect some degree of Divine reciprocity. As the Midrash explains, she refused to give salt (to accompany the bread) to the strangers who visited her home and when punished became a pillar of salt. But I would like to veer in a different direction (within this same story). The Torah is a book of laws. The Torah is not a history or a story book. As such when the Torah shares stories with us it is to teach us moral, ethical and/or legal lessons. What is the lesson from this episode? What are we to learn from Iris, the wife of Lot and what is the contemporary message?
Rav Shmuel Weinberg (1850-1916), the Rebbe of Slonim provides an incredible insight:
“When the angel said to them, ‘Al tabet acharecha, do not look behind you’ this was referring to the failures of the past. The wife of Lot looked back and what occurred? She became a pillar of salt.”
The Rebbe is teaching us an incredible lesson. Embedded in this story is perhaps one of the most important life principals. If you want to build a future, you must let go of the past. If you want to move forward, you must stop looking in the rearview mirror. Memory is a gift, but if used incorrectly can become a handicap. We all fail and in the aftermath of failure we must dust ourselves off, learn the hard lessons and move forward. We cannot live in the past because we cannot change the past. We can’t replay the mistakes and missteps of our past over and over because there is nothing more we can do to correct them. The only way to build a new future is to stop looking back and start moving forward.
God was giving Lot and his family the opportunity to start again and make a new life for themselves. But Iris looked back, she couldn’t detach from her past, she was tethered to it and therefore couldn’t move on. She turned into a pillar of salt. Why salt? Salt is a preservative, it keeps things in their present state, it prevents change and evolution. Iris couldn’t evolve or change because she was always looking back. Thus, she became stagnant, present-preserving salt.
There are painful moments in our past. There are failures and mistakes which have changed who we are and the direction of our lives. But each and every day God gives us the gift of a new beginning. We can always start over. Keep your eyes on the magnificent mountains of accomplishment ahead, keep your eyes on the beautiful possibilities that await you. And as you journey forward hear the message of the angel, the message of the Torah ringing in your ears: “don’t look back.”
A new series on Parsha, Rabbi Silber shares some of the basic highlights from the weekly torah portion.
“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. And he said, ‘My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree’” (Bereishis 14:1-4).
Avraham, just a few days post-circumcision sits, at the entranceway of his tent longingly looking for guests to invite into his home. Avraham, the paradigm of chessed (loving kindness), feels incomplete without the opportunity to host guests and attend to their needs. This great man, our Patriarch was a true giver and was always on the lookout for opportunities to help and be there for the other. It is intriguing to note the detail in which the Torah conveys this episode. We are told what Avraham offered the guests, which items he served himself and which items he asked his servants to bring. Why the need for such specificity? If the Torah’s point is to convey to us the need to be baalei chessed (kind and charitable people) this could have been accomplished without all the detail. All we need to know is that despite physical pain and advanced age, Avraham was pre-occupied with doing good for others. If Avraham could do it at 100 years old then we can push ourselves as well. But still, why the need to tell us about the water, washing of feet and reclining under a tree?
The Imrei Yosef (Spinka Rebbe, Rav Yosef Meir Weiss 1838-1909) provides a beautiful insight. The Rebbe explains that the Torah is not simply providing us with information about Avraham’s hospitality; it is providing us with the framework for successful living.
Mayim (water) is a reference to Torah. Just as water sustains life; Torah, spirituality, a relationship with God are life-sustaining necessities in the life of the Jew.
Rachatzu Ragleychem (wash your feet) references the dirt of our mistakes which weighs us down and prevents us from moving forward. We all have dreams, aspirations and finish lines we want to cross. Yet, at times we feel unable to do so as we are sullied and tarnished by the mistakes and missteps of our past.
V’Hishanu Tachas Ha’Eytz (recline on the tree) is reference to the Tree of Life, the Torah (Etz Chaim He, it is a living tree), as the Pasuk calls it “the tree” rather than “a tree.” Torah and spirituality have to be our anchor in life. Our relationship with God is the rock we lean on in difficult times. We don’t want our spirituality to be a recreational activity,but the very anchor of our existence.
If we put all of these pieces together we emerge with an incredible message:
Yukach Na Mi’at Mayim, (take a little bit of water) – God doesn’t ask us for perfection. He just asks for a little bit of growth each and every day. Drink a bit more water, ingest a bit more spirituality, and perform a bit more kindness every day. As long as today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow is better than today we’re doing great.
Rachatzu Ragleychem (wash your feet)– If we grow a little bit each day, if we drink a bit more water of spirituality, we will find ourselves better equipped to clean the dirt of ourmistakes. We won’t live in the cycle of guilt and will find a way to let go of those things which hold us back. We will wash away the dirt and give ourselves the strength to continue the journey.
V’Hishanu Tachas Ha’Eytz (recline on the tree) – If we drink the water and clean our feetwe will anchor ourselves in a life of holiness. Torah will become our guiding light and our relationship with God our greatest treasure.
Avraham Avinu teaches us the power of chessed, but he also prophetically conveys to us the game plan for successful living; drinking, washing and anchoring. May we find the strength to actualize his message.