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Parshat Va'Yeira - "Let's not forget Mamre"
by Rabbi Herzl Hefter
In a parasha that contains the stories of the birth and binding of Yitzchak, and the overturning of Sodom, I wish to write about a seemingly trivial point. The pasuk states: "And the LORD appeared unto him in the palace of Mamre" (Breishit 18:1).
Mamre, I believe, is the unsung hero in this week's parasha. The midrash asks what Mamre did to merit having that God's revelation occur in his homestead:
And why was he called Mamre? R. Azariah said in the name of R. Judah: Because he rebuked (Himrah) Abraham. When the Holy One, blessed be He, commanded Abraham to circumcise himself he went and took counsel with his three friends. Aner said to him: 'You are already a hundred years old, yet you would inflict this pain upon yourself?' Eshkol said to him: 'Why should you go and make yourself distinguishable to your enemies? But Mamre said to him: 'When did He not stand by you? --in the fiery furnace, in famine, and in your war with the kings [He was with you]! Will you not obey Him, then, in this matter?' Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to him: 'Thou gave him good advice to circumcise himself: by thy life! I will reveal Myself to him only in your palace.' Hence it is written: 'And the Lord appeared unto him in the palace of Mamre.'
(Breishit Rabba 42:8)
This midrash is baffling. Does Abraham, the model of obedience to God's will, really need Mamre to persuade him to perform the act of circumcision?
Commenting on this the Sefat Emet says:
Mamre understood that through the circumcision a covenant between Abraham and God would be forged, creating an exclusive relationship between Abraham and his offspring and God. This would separate Abraham and his children from the rests of humankind. Aner and Eshkol objected to this new development, but Mamre had faith and understood that this was the way it needed to be, and that he (Mamre) was not worthy enough to be part of this exclusive relationship with the Almighty. He accepted the necessity of an exclusive covenant between Abraham and God even though it meant that he would be excluded and as a consequence be further away from God. Paradoxically it was this very consent to a more distant relationship that brought him closer. This precipitated the Divine revelation in his homestead and he had a closer relationship with God precisely because he was willing to sacrifice it and endure alienation from God.
(Sefat Emet, VaYera, 5634)
Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Leib, author of the Sefat Emet, offers us a keen insight into the mysteries of the human heart. I believe that the experience of sacrificing closeness to God for God generated a feeling of love and commitment in Mamre's heart that precipitated God's response.
I want to clarify this through the words of the Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izbica, in his classic, the Mei HaShiloach:
Initially, when a person begins to desire to draw near to God, God hides His light from him in order to clarify and purify (levarer) the desire until God actually breaks his heart, and he realizes his imperfections. Through this [heartbreak] the individual merits an even greater revelation...
(Mei HaShiloach, Tazria, Part 1 s.v. Isha)
The Mei HaShiloach is referring, I believe, to the same phenomenon as the Sefat Emet, but from a different perspective. The Sefat Emet is writing from the human perspective, whereas the Mei HaShiloach is writing from the Divine perspective. God desires, or rather, demands, authenticity. What is our real motivation when we desire closeness with God? Perhaps we are seeking a spiritual high, or for meaning in our scattered lives, or self-fulfillment. Such a striving may ultimately bring us to God but it still must be distinguished from an authentic search for God. The Mei HaShiloach is concerned with the question of how we can know that we our search is authentic, our motives pure. At this point God graciously (so to speak) steps in and hides his light. What is our response to the hiding of His Light? If we are seeking self-fulfillment or an amorphous spirituality, perhaps we will shrug our shoulders and turn to tai chi, yoga or meditation. (I do not mean to denigrate yoga or tai chi, only that these activities should not replace a religious quest for closeness to God.) If however, our desire is pure, we will cling tenaciously to our original quest: closeness to God. The broken heart can be nothing but authentic.
Mamre, in his willingness to sacrifice his closeness to God for the sake of God, set a standard for religious authenticity. Living at this level of intensity and self-scrutiny is not easy, but aspiring to live this way places us in the presence of the God of Abraham who revealed Himself in the home of Mamre.