"And the two messengers came to Sedom in the evening. And Lote sat at the gate of the Sedom. And Lote saw and he rose to greet them. And he bowed to the ground." (Beresheit 19:2)
Hashem sends three messengers to Avraham. One has been assigned the responsibility of healing Avraham from his recent milah circumcision. Another is to tell Avraham that Sara would soon bare him a son Yitzchak. A third malach will tell Avraham of the coming destruction of Sedom. After fulfilling his responsibility, the angel that foretold the birth of Yitzchak leaves Avraham and the others. His job is done. The remaining two messengers proceed to Sedom. One will destroy the city. The other will save Lote and his family. In our pasuk, the messengers of Hashem approach the city. Lote rises to welcome them. The Torah uses two different terms in referring to these messengers. Previously, the messengers appeared before Avraham. In that instance, the Torah described them as "men." In our pasuk, the messengers appear before Lote. Here, they are referred to as malachim. This term has a dual meaning. It can be translated as "messengers." It can also be translated as "angels." Why does the Torah use two different terms in describing these messengers?
Rashi raises this question and offers an answer. He begins with the assumption that, in the context of our passages, the term malachim means "angels." He explains that Avraham possessed great spiritual power. He was accustomed to encountering angels. The Torah wishes to allude to Avraham's familiarity with these heavenly messengers. Therefore, the Torah refers to them as men. Lote did not share Avraham's spiritual greatness. He did not commonly encounter angels. To Lote, heavenly messengers were alien. Therefore, in reference to Lote, they are referred to as malachim, or angels. Rashi's comments are very difficult to understand. It is true that Avraham was not awed by the visit of these guests. This implies that such visits were commonplace. However, Lote had a similar reaction to encountering these messengers. He hospitably greeted them. Like Avraham, Lote does not seem to be particularly awed by these guests. There is a further problem. Certainly, Avraham was a spiritual giant. However, there is no indication from the Torah that he regularly saw angels. We must begin by realizing that Rashi's comments cannot be understood literally.
It is clear from the pesukim that neither Avraham nor Lote were shocked by the appearance of these messengers. Both at least initially treated their guests as mortals. Indeed, it seems that they both initially assumed that these travelers were mere mortals! Rashi's intention is to indicate that there is an additional message communicated by the passages. This message concerns the spiritual perfection achieved by Lote and Avraham. Rashi is not claiming that this spiritual perfection actually impacted upon their respective responses to the messengers. However, the passages allude to Avraham and Lote's perfection. It remains for us to understand this message imbedded in the passages' phraseology. As we have explained, the term malach means messenger or angel. These two meanings are related. An angel is the perfect messenger of the Almighty. A perfect messenger carries out the orders of its master without deviation. Its will is completely subservient to the will of the master. Angels meet these requirements. Humans rarely achieve this level of devotion to Hashem. We cannot easily push aside our egocentric natures. We work to devote ourselves to the Creator. But, this devotion battles with our dedication to ourselves. We are not perfect messengers.
However, some special individuals do approach the level of devotion attributed to angels. Moshe came the closest. Hashem describes Moshe as His servant. This term describes complete subservience to the Almighty. Avraham was not as great as Moshe. But, he also approached the perfection of the angels. We can describe this perfection. We can discuss it. However, we cannot really visualize or relate to it. Individuals like Moshe and Avraham were personally familiar with this remarkable level of spiritual achievement.
We can now understand Rashi's comments. Avraham was familiar with angels. He saw them regularly. This does not mean that Divine angels visited Avraham on a weekly basis. Avraham did not need these visits to be familiar with angels. Angels symbolize the concept of complete devotion to G-d. Avraham was intimately familiar with this concept. He could relate to and visualize this concept. To Avraham, it was achievable by humans. Lote, like us, could understand the concept of complete devotion. However, to Lote, it was the domain of the angels. He had not achieved the personal spiritual perfection of Avraham. He could not readily relate to the perfection represented by angels.
"Behold please, I have two daughters who have never known a man. I will bring them out to you. And do to them as is fit in your eyes. But do not do anything to these men for they have come under my roof." (Beresheit 19:8)
Hashem sends two melachim - messengers - to Sedom. One will destroy Sedom. The other will save Lote and his family. Lote takes these strangers into his home. The people of Sedom surround Lote's home. They command Lote to send out his guests. They tell Lote that they wish to "know" his guests. The commentaries understand this phrase to allude to homosexual assault. Lote refuses. He offers his daughters to the people. He tells the mob that they may do to his daughters as they please. However, they should not harm his guests. He is obligated to protect these strangers who have taken refuge in his home. Lote's offer to exchange his daughters for the safety of his quests is difficult to understand. It is admirable that he felt obligated to protect these strangers. But certainly, he was also obligated to care for his daughters' wellbeing! Sforno offers an interesting explanation of Lote's behavior. He explains that Lote was attempting to create confusion and dissention within the mob. His daughters were already engaged. Lote expected that his offer would be accepted. This would alarm his future sons-in-law. They would turn against the mob. They would probably attract sympathetic supporters among the people. The mob would be split and turned against itself.
And He said, "Do not send your hand against the young man and do not do anything to him. For now I know that you fear G-d and you did not withhold your special son from me." (Beresheit 22:12)
Hashem commands Avraham to offer his son Yitzchak as an olah sacrifice. Avraham take Yitzchak to the mountain that Hashem indicates. He prepares to sacrifice Yitzchak. The Almighty speaks to Avraham and tells him he should not slaughter Yitzchak. Through his willingness to sacrifice his son, Avraham has shown his devotion to the Almighty. Rashi explains that Avraham was confused by the Almighty's command to sacrifice Yitzchak. Hashem had promised Avraham that his descendants would become a great nation. Yitzchak was to be the beginning of this nation. Then, the Almighty commanded Avraham to offer Yitzchak as an olah sacrifice. Now, Hashem tells Avraham not to harm Yitzchak. The Almighty does not change. He cannot give contradictory commands and promises. Avraham asked Hashem to reconcile these various prophecies. The Almighty responds that these prophecies were not in conflict. He had never commanded Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak. He had told Avraham to offer Yitzchak. By placing Yitzchak on the altar, this was accomplished. The fulfillment of the command did not require Yitzchak's slaughter. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik Ztl notes that Rashi's comments are difficult to understand. This incident the akaidah was one of the Avraham's trails. The Almighty subjected Avraham to this test. Yet, according to Rashi, Hashem did not really construct this test. The trail was a result of Avraham's misunderstanding of the Almighty's command to offer Yitzchak as an olah sacrifice. Avraham erroneously assumed this required Yitzchak's slaughter. In fact, the command only required Yitzchak's placement upon the altar. In addition, it seems odd that Avraham would misunderstand the prophecy and make this mistake. Rav Chaim explained that Avraham did not misunderstand. He had been commanded to offer Yitzchak as an olah sacrifice. The slaughter of the sacrifice is an essential component of the service. Avraham was correct to assume that the command required Yitzchak's death. Hashem told Avraham not to sacrifice Yitzchak. This was not a clarification. This command excluded Yitzchak from the normal parameters of the olah service. Without this prophecy, Avraham would have been required to sacrifice Yitzchak. In short, Avraham understood Hashem properly. The final prophecy was not a clarification. It was an exclusion of Yitzchak from the general requirements of the olah service.
Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary
on Sefer Beresheit 19:1.