Vayeira – Genesis 18-22
“And God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre.” (Genesis 18:1)
The Midrash relates that when God commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and his entire household, Avraham sought the advice of his three friends: Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Aner told him that the circumcision would weaken him and render him vulnerable to attack from relatives of the four kings he had just vanquished. Eshkol stressed that the operation itself, with the attendant loss of blood, was life threatening. His friend, Mamre, however, told Avraham that having experienced God’s deliverance from Nimrod’s furnace and the miraculous victory over four mighty kings, he should trust in God and follow His command. For this advice, Mamre was rewarded by God appearing to Avraham on his estate – “in the plains of Mamre.”
However, this Midrash raises questions. Why did Avraham ask his friends’ advice? Had not God already spoken to him? Was that not enough? And if two out of the three emphasized the danger involved, why did Avraham listen to Mamre, the only one who stressed the need for trust in God? Finally, why was Mamre rewarded for giving Avraham obvious advice, rather than Aner and Eshkol punished for attempting to discourage him?
To answer these questions, we must first understand the essence of friendship and the value of a friend.
Everyone’s perspective is highly subjective and biased with respect to all matters concerning himself. His personal attitudes and desires can blind his eyes and prevent him from objectively weighing the pros and cons of a situation. For this reason, writes Meiri in his commentary to Proverbs (20:18), one needs the perspective of someone who is removed from all the subjective biases that cloud one’s vision, someone who can weigh the situation without the infuence of personal emotions. A friend need not be at a higher spiritual level, or even as high, to offer valuable advice; he need only be free of the particular desires which render us incapable of being objective. In fact, it often happens that the best advice we receive is from someone — like a child or a young person — who by all appearances seems to be less spiritually mature than we may think we are. It takes a certain humility to accept advice from such a person, but then, is not humility the most prized of all virtues?
Even if we have already reached a definite decision, it is still commendable to seek the advice of others, since it is not only the action which is important, but also the feelings and intentions that go with it.
The purpose of a friend’s advice is to provide an objective view of the issue at hand. Therefore the friend must not introduce his own biases, emotions and subjectivity. His task is not to imagine himself with the same dilemma, but rather to ask himself, “If I were he, without his subjective bias, what would I do?”
Avraham never doubted that he would fulfill God’s command concerning circumcision. Nevertheless he still sought the advice of his three friends to gain a more objective view of his situation. Aner and Eshkol did not necessarily give him bad advice. In fact, the Midrash never says explicitly that they advised him not to perform the mitzvah. However, theirs were words of fear for oneself, rather than love for God.
Mamre, by contrast, projected himself into Avraham’s place and advised him on the basis of Avraham’s frame of reference and experience of Divine protection. Hence Avraham’s thoughts while undergoing the brit centered on faith and trust that God would assist him in fulfilling this command, as He had assisted him throughout his life.
Through God’s revelation to Avraham in the plains of Mamre, we learn that receiving guests is greater than receiving God’s presence, for Avraham interrupted his communion with God to run to greet the three angels disguised as men. Entertaining guests requires consideration of another’s needs and shedding one’s own narrow wants and desires; a willingness to be inconvenienced even for the sake of being a blessing to others.
The value of a true friend cannot be overestimated. Friendships that nourish, encourage and support our spiritual growth are the dearest friendships of all. May we all be that kind of friend to others.
In Tune with Torah this week: how am I doing in being a source of strength, uplifting and encouragement to my friends?