The following drasha was given at the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo on Shabbat Lech Lecha 5749 (1988), and transcribed from memory by Jeffery Zucker.
in today’s parsha we read about Abram’s travels. He did not travel alone. Apart from his many followers, he had three companions: Aner, Eshcol and Mamre.
They do not have very high visibility in the Bible, but there is a midrash about them which I would like to recount. When G-d commanded Abram (henceforth Abraham) to circumcise himself and his male household, he asked advice from these three friends in turn, as to whether he should carry out G-d’s wish. Er answered: “You are an old man, the operation will be painful, don’t do it!”
Eshcol answered: “The pain is not a problem, I am sure you can withstand that, but why should you mark yourself in this way among your enemies?” But Mamre answered: “Look, surely you can trust G-d, who protected you from the fiery furnace, and in the battle with the four kings, to know what He is doing here!” So Abraham went ahead with the circumcision, and G-d said to Mamre: “In recognition of your support, it will be recorded that I spoke to Abraham among the oaks of Mamre” (“Eilon Mamre”; Gen. 18:1).
This is a strange story. For Abraham had obeyed G-d unquestioningly on (apparently) much more serious issues — the command to sacrifice his son, for example, or the command to leave home! Why should he suddenly seek advice from his friends on this matter? And suppose they had all said “No” — then what?
The situation becomes even stranger when we read the commentary of [Rashi ??], who says that when Abraham was about to circumcise himself, his hand trembled, so G-d stretched out His hand and guided Abraham’s knife. (And in honor of this, we rejoice now at a bris mila, instead of being worried and depressed, as we normally would at an operation.)
Of course, I think that most of us, in a position such as this (having to circumcise oneself as an adult) would be terrified! But Abraham was no ordinary person. He had shown himself to be a man of great courage, in regard to sacrificing his son, for instance, or throwing himself into the furnace. What was it, then, about circumcision, which unnerved him so?
I think the answer is this. The main activity of Abraham and his wife Sarah was “keruv”, or converting people to the idea of monotheism. Abraham might have felt that he was most successful in this when he looked just like everyone else — when he appeared to be “one of the boys”. In this way, he believed, he could best approach people, and then get his message across. Perhaps he felt that if he were marked externally as “different” by circumcision, his missionary activity would suffer.
And Mamre reassured him: “Don’t worry, G-d knows what He is doing. Trust Him!”
In fact, I believe that in any case Abraham’s concern was misplaced. We tend to believe that we are most accepted when we merge in with the surroundings. But this is not necessarily so. Even if Abraham had tried to look and dress like his neighbors, he would have given himself away the moment he opened his mouth!
How many of us would think of starting a conversation about religion at a cocktail party? (“Hey, I wanna tell you what happened at Mount Sinai …”) It would appear very uncool — although monotheism is supposed to be widely accepted now! Abraham’s message was much more startling in his environment — a heathen world. Trying to appear like his neighbors would not likely have helped him gain acceptance.
The point here is that external appearances are unimportant. The important issue is one’s internal state. People who would be inclined to accept Abraham’s amazing message, would do so regardless of whether he managed to blend into his environment or not. And Abraham was reminded of this fact each time he heard G-d’s voice among the oaks of Mamre.