The מפרשים are bothered by the first pasuk in this week’s parasha:
What was this “וירא”. We don’t hear of any prophetic message, unlike (בראשית יב:ז) וַיֵּרָא ה׳ אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת. Nothing happens after this מראה.
Ibn Ezra has what I think is an amusing comment, that I think is aimed at the Christians:
But we will ignore that.
Rashi connects it to last week’s parasha, when Abraham is circumcised:
The מראה is its own purpose. Visiting the sick doesn’t require speaking; just being there matters. Rav Soloveitchik in Chumash Mesoras HaRav notes that the grammar (וירא אליו ה׳ rather than the “correct” וירא ה׳ אליו) implies that וירא אליו is a verb phrase meaning “visited”. It’s how we learn about ביקור חולים:
The gemara brings a similar opinion, that the message acually comes later in the perek:
And what happened here is that ה׳ appeared to Abraham, then Abraham saw the travelers, and puts G-d on hold:
The message to us, the readers of the Torah, is that מעשה אבות is how we learn דרך ארץ, how to behave:
These are principles, not laws. גמילות חסדים can’t be specified in concrete commandments; it is a matter of sensitivity to the needs of others. חז״ל created guidelines for גמילות חסדים but מדאוריתא the rule is much more general:
Another approach is to say that the story that follows is the מראה. Rashbam says that the appearance of angels is often called “וירא ה׳”:
The Rambam takes this idea one step farther. He says the entire story was a prophetic vision. It never happened.
Rambam says this because it is an important part of his theology, that angels are real but are שכלים נבדלים, isolated intelligences that can never be physically sensed. Any interaction with an angel in תנ״ך must be a vision:
The Ramban is horrified at this:
The Abarbanel in his commentary on תנ״ך disagrees with Rambam (he basically takes Rashi’s approach) but says that the Ramban goes too far:
And in his commentary on מורה נבוכים he justifies the Rambam:
Incidently this model supports Rabbi Greenfield’s idea that ה׳ was angry with Abraham when Sarah laughed:
The narrative of what actually happened starts from:
So Abraham has a vision of himself greeting three travelers, getting the news about a son and—in a prophecy within a prophecy—argues with G-d about destroying Sodom, then the vision continues with Abraham watching the “test” of Sodom in Lot’s house. What does this prophecy mean?
If this is all a נבואה, what is the point? The lesson for us, the nature of ספר הישר, doesn’t change. But I think Abarbanel is saying that תועלת בהראות לו כל זה
במראה להודיע שכן היה מנהגו כל הימים לעשות לאורחים
הבאים עליו, that Abraham needed to hear this lesson also. He needed to know that the חסד that he had been doing, that he had been preaching along with his monotheism, was in fact רצון ה׳. he has had relationship with הקב״ה since last parasha, but now he is given a mission:
And there’s another half of this נבואה. Abraham has to do צדקה ומשפט, but that is impossible:
There’s a dialectic here. The world needs both חסד and דין. ה׳ is telling Abraham that he is a paragon of חסד, the idea that we are all one, that your pain is my pain and your troubles are my troubles. That’s the first half of the נבואה. The “turn” of the נבואה is the mission לעשות צדקה ומשפט. He has to learn about דין. ה׳ sets up the situation that makes Abraham say (בראשית יח:כה) חללה לך מעשת כדבר הזה…והיה כצדיק כרשע. He is shown a vision of true evil, and understands the need to make judgments.
And that is the connection with the news of the impending birth of Isaac. יצחק represents דין:
And this dialectic will lead to the synthesis represented by Jacob and the establishment of בני ישראל.