Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
Bereishis, 18:1: “And Hashem appeared to him [Avraham] in Elonei Mamrei…”
Rashi, 18:1: Dh: B’Elonei Mamrei: “He [Mamrei] is the one that gave him the advice about circumcision, therefore, [Hashem] was revealed to him [Avraham] in his portion.
Daas Zekeinim, 18:1: Dh: Vayeira: “…When the Holy One Blessed is He commanded him to circumcise all of his household, he went to Aner and Eshkol to ask what he should do with regard to his household, and they did not know what to answer him. He went to Mamrei and he gave him the advice to circumcise himself and Yishmael his son first, and when they [his household] would see this, then they would accept to be circumcised themselves. [As it says], on that very day, Avraham and Yishmael his son was circumcised, and then it says, ‘And all his household with him…”
The Midrash1 relates that when G-d commanded Avraham to perform circumcision, Avraham asked the advice of his three friends, Aner, Eshkol and Mamrei about how to proceed. The simple understanding of this Midrash is that Avraham was consulting with them about whether he should perform the mila at all. However, the commentaries find it impossible to accept that a tzaddik such as Avraham who always unquestionably followed G-d’s word would ask his friends whether he should listen to the instruction of circumcision. Therefore, they offer alternative understandings of what exactly Avraham was asking his friends about.2
The Daat Zekeinim offers an interesting explanation: He understands that Avraham was not asking his friends about whether he should do circumcision – that was a given. However, he was asking if he should make his entire household also do circumcision. The Daat Zekeinim does not explain why he was unsure about the aspect in particular, but it seems that Avraham was concerned that his household would refuse to do the circumcision given the pain it would involve. Accordingly, Mamrei answered him that they should do circumcision and the way to ensure that they would agree, would be that Avraham should circumcise himself and his son first, and then he would be able to persuade his household to also perform circumcision.
The Chiddushei Lev3 asks that seemingly Mamrei should have offered a different suggestion to Avraham; that he should actually be the last to perform the circumcision so that he would have the strength to use his great powers of persuasion to influence his household to want to the circumcision himself. If he would be the first to perform the circumcision, then surely he would be too weak to be able to encourage and persuade them do the circumcision himself.
The Chiddushei Lev answers that we must conclude that the personal example of Avraham perform circumcision first would do more to encourage his household to do circumcision themselves than all the words of teaching and persuasion. This was the case even though he would not be able to verbally exhort them once he had performed the circumcision. We learn from here and important principle: Seeing a great person doing a certain action has more influence than him telling us to perform that very action.
One area where this idea that teaching by example is the greatest way of influencing someone is very pertinent is parenting. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein4 suggests a fascinating source for this idea also from this week’s Torah Portion. When Avraham is serving the Angels, he provides them with food and drink. He brings the food himself but he instructs his son, Yishmael to bring the water because he wanted to educate his son in the Mitzva of hachnachat orchim (welcoming guests). The Talmud5 teaches that G-d rewarded Avraham’s actions by providing his descendants with these same things when they were in the desert. For example, since Avraham directly gave them milk and butter, measure for measure, his descendants G-d would directly provide them with the manna. However, with regard to the water, since Avraham only gave them the water through an intermediary (Yishmael), therefore, measure for measure, they would not receive it directly from G-d, rather through an intermediary – Moshe. Clearly, it would have been preferable to receive the water directly from G-d, so it would seem that Avraham should not have told his son to bring the water, rather he should have done it himself. Yet, Rav Feinstein asks, Avraham’s motivation in instructing his son was to fulfil the Mitzva of training children in Mitzvot which is surely highly praiseworthy.
Rav Feinstein concludes that we learn from here that parenting by example if superior to parenting by instruction and it would indeed have been preferable for Avraham to bring the water himself and thereby serve as a personal example to Yishmael of how one should act.
In this vein, the story is told of a wealthy supporter of Torah who came to a great Sage to complain that his son did not learn Torah, despite his father’s exhortations to do so. The Rabbi asked the man if he learnt Torah himself and he answered that he was too busy with his work to learn Torah. The Rabbi replied that the only way that he could influence his son to learn Torah was to serve as an example not by telling him to do something that he did not do himself.
There is a well-known saying, “do as I say, not as I do” that reflects a common attitude nowadays, and it has also crept into the Torah world as well. We learn from here that it is totally ineffective in influencing others. Rather, the best and indeed, only way to ultimately influence other people is to lead by example.
By Rabbi Yehonasan Gefen
- Bereishit Rabbah, 42:8.
- One answer commonly given is that Avraham was asking about whether he should publicize the circumcision or should he do it privately as he was concerned that it’s apparent barbarism would dissuade people from following Avraham’s teaching. An alternative explanation is offered here.
- Bereishit, 18:1.
- Cited by Talmi Yechiel, Parshat Va’etchanan, Maamer 11. A similar idea was also heard from Rabbi Yissachar Frand.
- Bava Metsiah, 86b.
Reprinted with permission
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