Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Vayera I: Angels

וירא אליו י"י - היאך? שבאו אליו שלשה אנשים שהיו מלאכים. שבהרבה מקומות כשנראה המלאך קורהו בלשון שכינה כדכת' כי שמי בקרבו, שלוחו כמותו. וכן וירא אליו מלאך י"י בלבת אש מתוך הסנה, וכתו' שם וירא י"י כי סר לראות:

היפלא מי"י - ששלחנו אליך דבר? וכן וי"י המטיר על סדום גפרית ואש מאת י"י מן השמים, הראשון שבפסוק הוא גבריאל והשני שבפסוק הוא הק'. וכן הוא מפורש בספר הגדה:

ויקמו משם האנשים - שנים מהם הלכו לסדום כדכת' ויבאו שני המלאכים סדומה, וגדול שבהם היה מדבר עם אברהם. וזהו שכת' בו וי"י אמר המכסה אני וגו', [וכן] ואברהם עודנו עומד לפני י"י. שני פסוקים אלו מדברים [ב]שלישי:

השופט כל הארץ - ששלחך כאן לא יעשה משפט:

ויאמר ד' - המלאך, [וכן] עומד לפני י"י, לפני המלאך לבקש פניו:

This week’s parashah is full of angels, as God has many tasks to accomplish: notifying Sarah of her impending pregnancy, destroying the city of S’dom, and, according to Rashi, a separate mission to heal Avraham after his recent circumcision. Because of this intense angelic presence in the narrative, we are forced to ask a number of interesting questions: What precisely is the relationship between angels and God? Are angels people? Are they manifestations of God? What does it mean for God to be manifested in human form?

Rashbam lays out his thoughts in Bereishit 18:1, 14, 16, 25, 26 (among other places), all of which I cited above. He is emphatic that God’s “appearance” (וירא) to Avraham is none other than the vision that follows with the three men coming to his tent. Angelic appearances are often cast as an appearance of God’s self, as in the case of Shemot 3:2-4, where an angel appears to Moshe and the narrative continues seamlessly to tell us that God—and not a מלאך—then begins to speak. This, for Rashbam, shows that these terms are interchangeable: God is often revealed through human figures.

I can’t help but think that part of the motivation for this line of interpretation is a desire to deal with the shocking narrative of Bereishit 18:17-33, where God expresses human doubt about concealing things from Avraham, Avraham is described as standing in front of God—as if God is a person standing right there!—Avraham and God square off as equals in a debate over the value of human life, and the passage ends with וילך ה', a highly anthropomorphic picture of God’s departure. Rashbam’s approach addresses all this by asserting that this is indeed a divine being in human form in dialogue with Avraham who gets up and walks away at the end of the conversation!

[I just discovered a similar post over at ADDeRabbi. And thanks for the kind words there!]

[For other comments on angels, see Rashbam on Shemot 13:21.]


At October 25, 2007 at 7:34 AM , Blogger David Guttmann said...

This is fascinating. i never focussed on this rashbam and i thank you for bringing it to my attention. The transition from God to angel and back when talking about the same people, and the connection of Ki Shemi Bekirbo, is interesting. I will have to see how he handles that passuk.

At October 25, 2007 at 8:04 AM , Blogger EMT said...

Please let me know what you find!

At October 25, 2007 at 5:34 PM , Blogger עזרא said...

Just in case you didn't hear, another blogger posted on a smilar topic this week, and I thought you may be interested. (Plus, your blog was referenced over there as well later in the day.)

I have been really enjoying your blog!

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