“Seeking Advice From a Good Friend”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, opens, G-d appears to Abraham in the Plains of Mamre.

The Bible, in Genesis 18:1, describes the scene, ” Va’yay’rah ay’lav Hashem b’Ay’lo’nay Mamre, v’hoo yo’shayv peh’tach ha’oh’hel k’chom ha’yom,” And G-d appeared to him [Abraham] in the Plains of Mamre, while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent, in the heat of the day.

In their effort to explain the juxtaposition of the conclusion of last week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, regarding Abraham’s circumcision, with the opening of this week’s parasha, the commentators suggest that G-d came to visit Abraham, who was recovering from having circumcised himself at age 99.

The Midrash also clarifies the reason that Abraham was sitting at the entrance of the tent, attributing it to Abraham’s desire to welcome passers-by, hoping to provide hospitality for them. G-d, however, did not want the elderly and ailing Abraham troubled with guests. He therefore brought the sun out from behind the clouds, in order to discourage guests from traveling in the intense heat. Realizing that Abraham was upset by the lack of visitors, G-d brought three angels to Abraham in the form of men.

Rashi asks why the Torah specifically notes that Abraham was sitting in the Plains of Mamre. After all, the Torah does not normally specify the site of Divine revelation. Besides, it is already known from Genesis 14:13 that Abraham’s home was in the Plains of Mamre. Rashi explains that the Plains of Mamre are mentioned because Abraham’s compatriot, Mamre, was the person who offered Abraham favorable advice about his circumcision. G-d therefore rewarded Mamre by revealing Himself to Abraham on Mamre’s property.

The Midrash Rabbah 42:8 expands, explaining that at the time that the Al-mighty instructed Abraham to be circumcised, Abraham went to consult with his three Amorite compatriots, Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Aner said to him: You are already 100 years old and are going to pain yourself with this operation? Eshkol said to him: Why should you go and thereby make yourself distinguishable to your enemies? Mamre, however, gently reprimanded Abraham, saying: Your G-d, Who stood with you in the fiery furnace, during the famines, and in your battles with the kings, now tells you to be circumcised, and you will not listen to Him? Therefore, G-d said to Mamre: You recommended that Abraham be circumcised, I swear that I will reveal myself to him [Abraham], not in the palace of Aner, nor the palace of Eshkol, but only in your palace. That is why Genesis 18:1 states that G-d appeared to him [Abraham] in “Ay’lo’nay Mamre.”

Rabbi Zev Leff, in his erudite and insightful book, Shee’oo’ray Vee’nah , extensively analyzes the interchange between Abraham and his compatriots. Rabbi Leff questions why Abraham felt it necessary to seek advice whether to fulfill G-d’s command. After all, it was the Al-mighty’s command! Furthermore, Abraham could have sought advice by going to the Bet Midrash of Shem and Ever, his G-d-fearing ancestors, rather than ask Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, who were most likely idolaters. Besides, if two of his three compatriots advised him against circumcision because of the dangers involved, why did Abraham heed Mamre’s advice, who underscored the need for Abraham to trust in G-d? Finally, asks Rabbi Leff, why were Aner and Eshkol not punished for attempting to dissuade Abraham? Instead, Mamre was rewarded for giving Abraham what was obvious and sensible advice.

Rabbi Leff responds to these questions by underscoring the importance that Judaism places on seeking advice. He notes that even G-d, when He created the first human being, consulted with the angels, as it states in Genesis 1:26: And G-d said, “Let us make Man in Our image, after Our likeness.” Rashi explains that G-d hoped, through His own example, to teach humility to all His creations, that the greater person should consult and take permission from the lesser one.

Similarly, Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 1:6, advises that one should acquire a friend for oneself. The commentators explain, that this implies that one should even seek advice of a friend who is beneath one’s own spiritual level.

Rabbi Leff explains that because people’s own perspective about themselves are often highly subjective and biased, it is always advisable to seek more objective advice by consulting a third party. Most people are blinded by their desires and are consequently unable to properly assess the pros and cons regarding their decisions. Therefore, even a friend who may be at a lower spiritual level can offer valuable objective advice.

Rabbi Leff cites the Rashba’s responsa (1:48), in which the Rashba instructs even those who have already reached a definitive conclusion, to still seek out the advice of others. This way, one can not only properly assess one’s own actions more objectively, but also recognize the feelings, thoughts and rationale behind the decision they are about to make.

Explains Rabbi Leff, Abraham never hesitated, even for a moment, about fulfilling G-d’s command concerning circumcision. The reason that Abraham sought advice from his confederates was to gain a more objective perspective on the situation. Aside from the fact that Aner, Eshkol and Mamre were the most noble inhabitants of the land at that time, they were particularly appropriate consultants, since they themselves had recently entered into a brit, a covenant. The Torah calls them (Genesis 14:13), “Ba’ah’lay brit Avram,” confederates of Abram, who had concluded a definitive covenant between themselves and Abram. They knew well the implications of making a brit.

Rabbi Leff concludes that, because the Midrash never explicitly states that Aner and Eshkol had advised Abraham not to go through with the circumcision, it is apparent that even Aner and Eshkol did not really give Abraham bad advice. The problem with their advice was that it was based exclusively on their own perspective, rather than on Abraham’s perspective. Had they themselves been faced with this dilemma, they certainly would have felt themselves endangered, either because of health reasons or because of the enemies, and would not have chosen to be circumcised, but that was not Abraham’s perspective. Mamre, however, was the only one of Abraham’s compatriots who was objective enough to put himself into Abraham’s shoes. Knowing the history of Abraham’s special relationship with the Al-mighty, and how G-d had saved Abraham on so many instances, Mamre understood that Abraham should unquestionably put his faith in G-d, and proceed with circumcision.

By extensively describing Abraham’s deliberations, the Midrash thus cogently teaches the singular importance of making objective decisions for oneself. Jewish law forbids one to testify about oneself, because one cannot be truly objective. Hence, consulting and confiding with friends, even those who are on a lower spiritual, intellectual and emotional level than oneself is always good advice. It is a particularly effective way to show humility and to refine one’s own character.

It worked for Abraham. Hopefully, it will work for us as well.

May you be blessed.