The joy was palpable. Avraham and Sarah were told they would be blessed with a son, and for the first time in many years, the future looked bright and optimistic. Yet, in the very moment Avraham’s family was to expand, the Divine plan for the destruction of Sodom was taking shape.
“And the Lord said, “Shall I conceal from Abraham what I am doing? And Abraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed in him.” (Bereishis 18:17-18)
God felt compelled to share his plan for the destruction of Sodom and its surrounding cities with Avraham. And as he hears of the imminent destruction, Avraham begins to bargain with God. If there are fifty righteous men, will you save the city? Avraham asks God. God agrees. When it became clear that there were not fifty righteous men to be found, Avraham kept asking, lowering the number of righteous souls through which to save the cities. But alas, Avraham was unsuccessful. There were not even ten righteous men whose merit could save the cities. Avraham lost the battle. The angels journeyed towards Sodom and destruction ensued.
The Torah states, “And the Lord departed when He finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place (18:33).” Why must the Torah tell us that “Avraham returned to his place?” What is the deeper meaning of this seemingly extraneous verse? Rashi comments: “… and Abraham returned to his place: The Judge left, the defender left, and the prosecutor is accusing. Therefore: “And the two angels came to Sodom,” to destroy (Gen. Rabbah 49:14).” Avraham has no more arguments to advance. No additional methods to advocate on behalf of the people of Sodom. The case is closed; the defender and prosecutor pack up, and the enforcers leave to carry out the sentence.
Rav Yechezkel Shraga Halberstam (Shiniver Rov, 1813-1898) explains, “even though Avraham was unable to save the people of Sodom through his prayer, and God destroyed them with fire and sulphur, Avraham’s service of God was not diminished. He understood that all God does is just…. ‘He returned to his place’ – he returned to serving God with joy, commitment, and love; just as he had done before.”
Avraham suffered a significant setback. Just a few verses earlier, God had crowned him the father of a multitude of nations. He was to inspire and shape not just the future Jewish people but humanity as a whole. He was to educate the masses as a father does for his children. He was to love the nations as a parent loves his own flesh and blood. When Avraham supplicated and bargained on behalf of the people of Sodom – he was a father begging for mercy on his children. Every parent has one basic, core instinct – protect my child at all costs. But he failed. He could not convince God to spare the people. He couldn’t protect his children. Avraham and God part company without uttering a word to one another. Sadness fills the air. Avraham, broken that he couldn’t save his children, God, saddened that He would have to punish his creations.
What does Avraham do after experiencing this set-back? “V’Avraham Shav Limkomo, Avraham returned to his place”. He retuned back to the state he was in before. He would not lose himself in pain or self-pity. He would not lose himself in the pit of despair. He needed to move on. He needed to figure out what had to be done to prevent another catastrophic event like this from occurring. How can I uplift humanity? How can I better the world? He dusted himself off, dried his tears, and resumed his relationship with God and the building of his spiritual self.
We all encounter defeat. There are moments when we feel we have failed and in doing so have let ourselves and others down. Some of these failures are real, and some are perceived. But the pain is often palpable. We learn from our first Patriarch, to dust ourselves off and find the courage and strength to pick up where we left off. When we suffer defeat, we must be shav limkomeynu, return to our place, resume our holy work, and continue down the path of life accomplishment.
Avraham sat outside his tent recovering from his circumcision. The Bris Milah was performed at an advanced age as the ultimate display of allegiance and commitment to God. On the third day of his recovery, the Ribbono Shel Olam, God comes to visit Avraham and performs the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick).
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 (Genesis 18:1)
The great Chassidic master, Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1810), asks why the verse states, “Now the Lord appeared to him.” Shouldn’t it read, “Now the Lord appeared to Avraham”? After the incredible sacrifice of the first patriarch, why not refer to him by name?
The Rebbe provides a mystical insight and explains that the letters of a person’s name are the utensils into which his or her personalistic holiness is gathered and contained. Each letter of one’s name is a kli (utensil) into which one’s conferred and acquired holiness is stored. But sometimes a person can do something of such great importance or accomplish something of such great magnitude that the letters of his name simply cannot contain all their acquired holiness. After Avraham had undergone circumcision, following his departure from his homeland and way of life and then sitting in the heat of day looking for opportunities for Hachnosas Orchim, hospitality, he had become so great that the letters of his name could not contain his personalistic holiness. Therefore, the Torah omits Avraham’s name, symbolizing his self-transcendent experience. Our first patriarch had simply grown beyond his name.
The power of a name is that it often captures our essence. In fact, the Arizal explains that parents are blessed with a spirit of prophecy when they name their child as the name has to fit the character and potential of the little baby. Yet, not even the parents know who this little person is or who he or she will become.
But names can also be limiting. At times we get used to being known by a certain name and identity, and we stop trying to grow and evolve. We must maximize our name and fill its letters with holiness and accomplishment, but at times, we must transcend our names and work to become someone new. Our first patriarch changed from Avram to Avraham and then from Avraham to “him.” He had accomplished so much until no name could describe or contain his holiness.
We go through life with many names. When we are born, our parents partner with God to find a suitable name which captures our yet unknown essence. As we get older, we acquire different names. I become a son, daughter, husband, wife, father, mother, friend, brother, and sister. And as the journey progresses, I acquire different names, perhaps, reflecting my career or accomplishments. Each of these names is important and meaningful. But I must be self-aware enough to know when the name I currently carry and am known by is holding me back and limiting my self-actualization. At times, the identity of my youth is not befitting my more mature years. Too many times in life, we live with the same identity long after we have truly outgrown it. I would never wear shoes which are two sizes too small, yet I live with an identity, with dreams and aspirations which are dated and need to be updated, reevaluated, and resized. My name is beautiful, but sometimes I outgrow it. It is in those moments that I must find the courage to find a new name and potentially live with no name as I create and cultivate my new identity.
“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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