Outlooks & Insights Parshat Vayeira: Value of a Friend's Advice
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Vayeira(Genesis 18-22)

Value of a Friend's Advice

"And God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre." (Genesis 18:1)

The Midrash relates that when God commanded Avraham to circumcise himself and his entire household, Avraham sought the advice of his three confederates - Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Aner told him that the bris would weaken him and render him vulnerable to attack from relatives of the four kings he had just vanquished. Eshkol stressed that the operation itself, with the attendant loss of blood, was life threatening. Mamre, however, told Avraham that having experienced God's deliverance from Nimrod's furnace and the miraculous victory over four mighty kings, he should trust in God and follow His command. For this advice, Mamre was rewarded by God appearing to Avraham on his estate - "in the plains of Mamre."

There are several difficulties with this Midrash. Most importantly, why did Avraham feel the necessity to seek advice whether or not to fulfill God's command? And if he needed advice, why did he not go to the Yeshiva of Shem or Ever, rather than ask Aner, Eshkol and Mamre? And if two out of the three emphasized the danger involved, why did Avraham listen to Mamre, who stressed the need for trust in God? Finally, why was Mamre rewarded for giving Avraham obvious advice, rather than Aner and Eshkol punished for attempting to dissuade him?

To answer these questions, we must first understand the essence of friendship and the value of a friend. The Sages teach that before God created man, He first consulted with the angels. From this we learn that one should seek advice even from those on a lower spiritual level. Similarly, the commentators to Pirkei Avos (1:6) comment on the teaching "...acquire a friend for yourself" - even one at a lower spiritual level.

But why should one seek the advice of a friend who is beneath him?

Everyone's perspective is highly subjective and biased with respect to all matters concerning himself. His desires blind his eyes from anything other than the object of his desires, and prevent him from weighing the pros and cons objectively. For this reason, writes Meiri in his commentary to Proverbs (20:18), one needs the perspective of someone who is removed from all the subjective biases that cloud one's vision, someone who can weigh the situation without having to contend with a welter of strong desires. A friend need not be at a higher spiritual level, or even as high, to offer valuable advice; he need only be free of the particular desires which render one incapable of objectivity.

So important is objective advice that Rabbeinu Yona (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:53) learns that the prohibition, "Do not put a stumbling block before the blind," applies not just to giving bad advice, but requires us to provide good advice as well. Depriving someone of objective counsel is itself putting a stumbling block before him. Without such counsel he will certainly err.

Rashba in his responsa (1:48) goes a step further. Even if one has already reached a definite decision, Rashba says, he should still seek the advice of others, since it is not only the action which is important, but also the feelings and intentions that go with it.

The purpose of a friend's advice is to provide an objective view of the issue at hand. Therefore the friend must not introduce his own biases, emotions and subjectivity. His task is not to imagine himself with the same dilemma, but rather to ask himself, "If I were he, without his subjective bias, what would I do?"

Avraham never doubted that he would fulfill God's command concerning the bris. Nevertheless he still sought the advice of his three confederates to gain a more objective view of his situation, just as Rashba says one should. And Avraham went precisely to those who could perhaps put themselves in his place, because they themselves had experience with a bris. Because Aner, Eshkol, and Mamre had forged a bond with Avraham, they had the potential to relate to the concept of bris.

Aner and Eshkol did not give him bad advice. In fact, the Midrash never says explicitly that they advised him not to perform the mitzvah. Rather, they considered what they would do if faced with a similar command and advised Avraham accordingly. By focusing on the dangers involved, they in effect advised Avraham to perform the mitzvah with such fears uppermost in his mind. This was not bad advice, but no advice at all because they failed to put themselves into Avraham's position, minus his bias and subjectivity.

Mamre, by contrast, projected himself into Avraham's place and advised him on the basis of Avraham's frame of reference and experience of Divine protection. Hence Avraham's thoughts while undergoing the bris centered on faith and trust that God would assist him in fulfilling this command, as He had assisted him throughout his life.

For freeing himself from his own subjective perspective, Mamre was rewarded by God's appearing in his portion. Objectivity is the precondition for recognition of the truth, i.e. the recognition of God Himself.

Through God's revelation to Avraham in the plains of Mamre, we learn that receiving guests is greater than receiving God's presence, for Avraham interrupted his communion with God to run to greet the three angels disguised as men. Entertaining guests requires consideration of another's needs and shedding one's own narrow subjectivity. The ability to attain objectivity allows perception of the truth of the Divine on a constant basis. Thus the ability to properly treat guests is superior to a one-time revelation of God's presence.

We pray three times a day, "Restore our judges as in earliest times and our counselors as at first..." May we all merit to both receive and provide objective advice so that we can live our lives according to the principles of righteousness set down by our judges of old. And in this way, "...God will remove from us sorrow and groaning."

Published: November 8, 2003

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