Why Do the Angels Eat?
The Torah portion opens with Avraham recovering from his bris milah. He was sitting at the entrance to his tent, hoping to offer hospitality to any passerby, when three men approached. They were actually malachim (angels) sent by God to Avraham, each for a specific task. Avraham invited them to join him and hurried to arrange a meal for them:
He took butter and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and he set it before them...and they ate. (Bereishis 18:8)
Did these "men" really eat? After all, despite their mortal appearance, they were malachim, who do not need human food. The Midrash provides us with an interesting view:
Anyone who claims that the malachim did not eat when they were with Avraham Avinu is talking nonsense. Rather, in the merit of that tzaddik, and, as a reward for all the effort he made, God opened their mouths and they ate. (Tanna D'Vei Eliyahu Rabbah 13:2)
So the malachim did eat, but only as a special act of grace for Avraham. However, this appears to be flatly contradicted by another incident later in this parasha, as we shall see.
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LOT AND THE MALACHIM
After they left Avraham, two of these malachim went to Sedom to effect its destruction. They encountered Lot, Avraham's unpleasant nephew, who had chosen to pasture his animals near Sedom, despite the wickedness of the local populace. Indeed, one of these malachim was entrusted with the task of saving Lot from Sedom's imminent demise. Lot begged the malachim to spend the night in his house. Eventually, they conceded, and we are told that
...he made a feast for them, baked matzos, and they ate. (Bereishis 19:3)
The malachim also ate in Lot's house, even though we cast him as a wicked character. How can the Midrash claim that the malachim were only able to eat in the merit of Avraham's righteousness?
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THE NATURE OF EATING
If we investigate closely, we will be able to detect two distinct elements involved in the act of eating. The first, and most obvious, is that the food enters our bodies and is digested. This gives us the nutrients we need to live healthy lives. But there is a second, less apparent purpose. All of our food comes from plants and animals, both of which are lower forms of life than we. By ingesting them and allowing them to become part of us, we raise them to a higher form of existence. That is, we take their very limited spiritual potential and attach it to our more sophisticated and valuable mode of life. In Kabbalistic terms, we take the worlds of the tzamei'ach (plant life) and chai (animal life) and raise them to the level of medaber (human life).
It is theoretically possible to achieve the first function of eating without any food! This could occur if bodily sustenance is provided by another source. For example, Moshe Rabbeinu neither ate nor drank for forty days on Har Sinai, receiving his nourishment directly from God. The Kabbalists state that this is one reason for the prohibition against eating and drinking on Yom Kippur. We are expected to reach a spiritual plane high enough so that these physical acts are unnecessary to gain sustenance; we can receive our nourishment straight from God.
This will help us to understand an assumption made by the midrash that we quoted at the start - that the malachim should not have eaten when they visited Avraham. Perhaps, as they appeared human and spoke like humans, they should also have eaten like humans! But in reality, their outward appearance was just that - completely external to their real essence. Even while they were on earth, they still retained their intimate connection with God, receiving their sustenance directly from Him. Hence the Midrash finds it necessary to explain why, on this one occasion, they ate human food.
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UNDERSTANDING A MEAL EATEN BY MALACHIM
It is apparent that malachim have no need to eat food in order to survive; they draw their resources directly from the Divine. If so, the purpose of any meal they might eat would be for the second function that we ascribed to eating, namely, to raise the spiritual value of the food itself. Any kedushah (holiness) potential that is inherent in any food given to malachim is raised, when they consume it, to the level of the malachim themselves. This is akin to the offering of an animal on the mizbei'ach (altar) in the Beis HaMikdash. It was not so much that the offering brought life and kedushah to the mizbei'ach; rather, the opposite. The act of offering upon the mizbei'ach enabled the animal to reach its "nirvana" through contact with the Divine. So too, the food ingested by melachim maximizes its kedushah potential.
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THE UNIQUENESS OF AVRAHAM
All this applies to an average person, for whom an encounter with an angel would be an outstanding experience and whose spiritual prowess is undoubtedly below that of malachim. Then it would be preferable for the malach to eat of his food, for the malach has the ability to raise it to a much higher level than the average person ever could. This was not the case, however, with Avraham, a man of astonishing spiritual ability, higher even than the malachim themselves. The midrash tells us that great men are greater than malachim:
Who is greater than whom - the guardian or the one whom he guards? The verse says, For He will command His malachim for you, to guard you in all your ways (Tehillim 91:11). The one whom he guards is greater than the guardian. (Bereishis Rabbah 78:1)
Tzaddikim are far greater than the malachim. (Sanhedrin 93a)
This prompts a remarkable consequence. It is obvious that within the context already mentioned, the greater the eater of the food, the greater the spiritual elevation it can achieve. If so, it would have been preferable for the meal served to the malachim to have been consumed by Avraham rather than by the malachim! It would therefore seem that the ingestion of the food by the malachim had no purpose at all, as it provided them with no nourishment and also failed to realize for the food what its consumption by Avraham could have achieved.
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LOT AND THE MALACHIM
It should now be quite clear why it was reasonable for the malachim to eat in Lot's house. Lot, as we have mentioned, was not as developed a person as Avraham Avinu; indeed, his behavior left a lot to be desired. As such, although the malachim could obtain no sustenance from the food they ate, it was more valuable for it to be consumed by them than by Lot. Indeed, Chazal do not question this fact, as we can assume that it was obvious to them.
Regarding Avraham's experience with the same malachim, when, as we have seen, there was no apparent purpose achieved for either the food or the malachim themselves, Chazal questioned the function of their meal. Therefore, the Midrash informs us that in Avraham's merit, and as a reward for all his efforts, they were made to eat. For even if Avraham recognized that his visitors were not men, as they appeared, but malachim, his great humility would never have allowed him to consider himself anything but an ordinary person. This means that he would have assumed that the malachim were greater than he, and thus it would be preferable for them to maximize the food's inherent kedushah than for him to eat it himself. Thus it was a great act of kindness for them to appear to eat, to preserve Avraham's self-image.
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THE SHABBOS MEALS
This concept has relevance to our weekly Shabbos meals. Shabbos is imbued with sufficient kedushah that we could imbibe it throughout the day and have no need for food or clothing to sustain us. However, Shabbos is not just an opportunity to develop our own kedushah, but also a chance to raise the level of the kedushah of our environment. Thus, by eating fine foods and wearing our best clothes on Shabbos, we enable those things to attach themselves to their spiritual roots and to become elevated with us.