A Time for Silence

Sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day, Avraham has an epiphany:

God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. (Bereishit 18:1)

This verse is followed by what seems to be an "interruption:"

He lifted up his eyes and looked, and saw that three men appeared before him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed to the ground. (Bereishit 18:2)

This description is problematic in several ways. First, introductory verses should contain at least some mention of the subject, and these verses do not: To whom did God appear? Who had this epiphany? Who ran to greet the three unexpected guests? The reader must assume that it is Avraham, but other than context, there is no clue. The second problem is far more vexing: What was the content of this revelation? Whenever the Torah reports communication between God and man, the text includes the content of that communication.

The introductory verse, “God appeared to him,” forces the reader to consider the coming verses as a continuation of the previous section (the concluding verses of the previous parashah) in order to identify the protagonist:

Abraham was ninety-nine years old, when he was circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin. … All the men of his house, those born in the house, and those bought with money of a foreigner, were circumcised along with him. (Bereishit 17:24,27)

God appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. (Bereishit 18:1)

From the context, we know that the subject of these verses, the recipient of this Divine communication, is Avraham; nonetheless, the formulation is awkward – unless its intention is to create a close connection between the two sections: The scene in which Avraham sits in his tent is a continuation of the previous section, in which he and his entire household are circumcised. This idea underlies the well-known rabbinic approach that God appears to Avraham specifically at this point in order to visit him in his hour of infirmity. For this same reason, this revelation has no verbal content: God does not appear to him to transmit a message, as is normally the case; now, He comes to visit the sick.

This non-verbal message is important, particularly to the modern reader. In a world bombarded with so much noise, with an over-abundance of messages and endless chatter, we might not have imagined that this silent visit could be of value. But God visits Avraham simply to be with him, and this may be the most profound message of all: After fulfilling the Mitzvah of brit milah, Avraham has a very immediate sense of God's closeness. He feels that the Divine Presence is with him, and senses it within him. As is often the case between two people who share an intimate relationship, no words are needed.

The halachah sets out guidelines for fulfilling the very important mitzvah of bikur holim - visiting someone who is unwell: Not only is it important to be there – to distract the sufferer or to hear their complaints, to empathize or entertain, but also to attend to any needs the patient may have. In fact, this halachah is extrapolated from God's behavior toward Avraham. Avraham had a need that was unfulfilled, and it apparently was causing him distress: He needed to perform acts of kindness, to help others; he needed guests. And so, God, who visited Avraham and comforted him with His very presence and closeness, attends to Avraham's needs by sending guests for Avraham and Sarah to welcome and care for.

This episode may be the key to understanding the challenging narrative that follows. Toward the end of the parashah, God makes an impossible request of Avraham:

It happened after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Avraham!” He said, “Here I am.” He said, “Now take your son, your only son, whom you love, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah. Offer him there for an olah offering on one of the mountains which I will tell you of.” (Bereishit 22:1-2)

Avraham proceeds to climb the mountain with his son, without uttering a word - no protest, no negotiation, not a word. This stands in sharp contrast with Avraham's relentless bargaining on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom, and with his prayer for the wellbeing of Sarah's would-be rapist, Avimelech; surely, Yitzchak deserved at least as strong a defense.

Perhaps what we have seen in the opening verses of this parashah explains Avraham's silence: The Avraham who is commanded to sacrifice his son is a changed man; now, Avraham has an intimate relationship with God – the intimacy evident in God's silent visit. Avraham senses God's closeness, His constant companionship, and feels no need to disrupt the intimate silence. When he was commanded years earlier to take a knife to his eight-day old son, Avraham did not imagine that the brit milah was a mere prelude to the Akeidah – but the intimacy of his relationship with God that was achieved as a result of the brit milah is reflected in the serenity of Avraham's reaction to this latest command: Avraham senses that God is with him; as God was silent after his circumcision, Avraham now chooses silence as the deepest expression of their intimate relationship.

Speech is one of the defining characteristics of humanity, but God taught Avraham that sometimes silence is not only golden, it is God-like.

As he moved resolutely toward the appointed place for the Akeidah, Avraham was able to be silent because he was aware, with every fiber of his being, that he was walking with God. Avraham understood that just as God had tended to his needs after his circumcision, He would look after him and his son now. And just as Avraham was transformed by the fulfillment of God's commandment of brit milah, so, too, Yitzchak was transformed by the experience of the Akeidah. Like his father before him, Yitzchak shared an intimacy with God that was expressed in profound yet powerful silence.


Shiur in memory of Pinchas Meyer Ben Hershel Avraham ha Levi