Is Three a Magic Number? (Parshat Vayera)

Commentary on Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24)

This edition of Torah from Truah is sponsored by Dale Gardner in memory of her sister Rhonda Kolarik.

“Three is a magic number.”

One can surely ascribe meaning to almost any number or any letter of the alphabet. But let’s consider the number three for a moment.

If, like me, you grew up in the United States in the latter part of the 20th century and were an aficionado of weekend cartoons, you might be familiar with the “Schoolhouse Rock” series of shorts, shown on ABC. They related core principles of basic disciplines ranging from civics to mathematics, refurbishing knowledge into kid-friendly language while accompanied by upbeat music and imparted via animation. And it just so happens that the very first “Schoolhouse Rock” cartoon was titled “Three is a magic number” explicating multiples of the number of three, while also referencing everything from triangles to, more subtly, the Christological concept of the trinity (which most of us—or at least I—didn’t pick up at the time).

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There are plenty of other important “threes” all around us, found within both religious and popular cultural frameworks. For instance, there are the three little pigs, or even the Three Stooges, while scholars of religion can point to examples, dating from antiquity up through the present, wherein the number three is hallowed in a variety of religious traditions. Three is also a significant number in Parshat Vayera.

You will recall that in Genesis18, Abraham, sitting in the opening of his tent during a sweltering day, not to mention recovering from circumcision, is visited by three “men.” These three men — or are they angels? — are on a threefold mission.

Find more Torah from T’ruah commentaries on Parshat Vayera here.

As described in midrash, the first angel is there to announce to Sarah that despite her age she is to be a mother, the second angel’s mission is to brief Abraham on God’s plan to destroy Sodom, and the third to help Abraham in his physical healing process. Coupled with this is the notion — although not all sages agree with this dictum — that angels are single-mission creatures. In other words, each of the three angels has a particular task to carry out; angels don’t multitask. Or, while it takes a village to raise a child, it takes at least three angels to carry out three missions.

Alternatively, some commentators (see Rabbeinu Bahya’s discussion of Genesis 18:2) argue that one among these angels, may represent God’s attribute of justice; another God’s attribute of mercy. Regardless of how one chooses to classify angelic responsibilities, what is clear here is that this moment in the lives of the Sarah and Abraham is no ordinary time. There is much work to be done within a limited time frame.

And isn’t this the case usually in life that we find ourselves facing multiple tasks that must be completed and often within a narrow time frame? We use expressions like “when it rains it pours,” in order to describe the difficulties of multitasking. Sometimes we set for ourselves deadlines impossible to keep, or at other times we just cannot say no to requests for more of our time. And we have to try to balance all of these tasks without always knowing exactly how much time, energy and resources to devote to one task over another. But even as being overwhelmed doesn’t make the challenges go away, we need to remember that none of us are alone in facing these tasks. And perhaps most important for us to remember is that that all of us have different skills.

For some of us there is a calling to affirm life and hope, as did one angel with Sarah. It is incumbent upon others among us to soberly declare the truth and point out imminent dangers to our society, as does another angel when announcing the destruction of Sodom. And for some of us, devotion to healing those who are suffering, as one angel did with Abraham following his brit, is our paramount concern.

Call me wishy washy, but it seems to me that all of these tasks embody matters of justice and mercy. All three of these messages are transmitted with the aspiration towards building a more just world, even as we must endeavor to carry out these tasks with grounding in mercifulness.

“In a place where there are no people,” Hillel teaches, “strive to be a person” (Pirkei Avot 2:6), often interpreted to mean, “In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader.” But in this context, we might rework this formulation to, “In a place where there are no angels, strive to be angelic.”

Rambam offers a useful insight into what it means to be angelic, noting (Guide for the Perplexed, pt. 2:6:4) “Before the angels have accomplished their task they are called men, when they have accomplished it they are angels.” For us mortals, we at least are obligated to try to accomplish our missions without expectations of being deputized as angels.

To rephrase Rabbi Tarfon, not infrequently our days are too short, our work is tremendous, our labors feel sluggish and our responsibilities are urgent. (Pirkei Avot 2:20) Nevertheless, just as it may not be our lot to solve the myriad of challenges faced today, we are likewise not free to desist in our labors of justice and mercy (Pirkei Avot 2:21).

As individuals we cannot “do everything,” but as a committed community each of us can contribute to the actualization of a just and merciful world. We may not be angels but we can strive toward emulating their example of service, by affirming the good, confronting the unjust, and by helping those in pain to be healed.

Rabbi Daniel Bronstein is an ordained rabbi and holds a PhD in Jewish history. With over 20 years experience in Jewish education, he now teaches for the departments of history and
sociology at Hunter College.