In an article for Vayeira, 5773, Rabbi Cherki compares the analysis by the Rambam and the Ramban of the appearance of the angels to Avraham.
Who is Right – Rambam, Ramban, or Ralbag?
A serious dispute brought the Rambam and the Ramban to the same topic in their discussions of this week's Torah portion. According to the Rambam, the entire story of Avraham welcoming his guests and the promise of the birth of Yitzchak, including the subsequent defense of Sedom and Amora, took place as a Divine vision, without any physical events. His proof is the phrase that opens the entire event, "And G-d appeared to Avraham" [Bereishit 18:1], which indicates a prophetic revelation and serves as a preamble for all that follows. Not only does the Ramban not accept this approach, he argues against it in very strong and unusual terms: "These are things that are contrary to the written word. One is forbidden to listen to them and to believe them." Why does he feel that a commentary that poses some difficulty can become heretical from the point of view of faith?
Rabbi David Cohen (a disciple of Rav Kook known as the "Nazir," the Ascetic) explained that the Ramban lived among Christians and was acutely sensitive to the possibility that the Rambam's explanation could be exploited by them and used against the Jews. They might discover that a prominent Jewish commentator explains that G-d appeared in the form of three men, and use this to justify their doctrine of the Trinity. The Rambam, on the other hand, lived in Moslem surroundings, where this fear did not exist, and he was more involved in combating folk beliefs that viewed spiritual matters in terms of demons and ghosts. This led him to emphasize the abstract significance of Avraham's encounter with the angels.
It is important to consider the difficulty that the Ramban had with the Rambam's approach, for we cannot accept an assumption that the Rambam did not see this difficulty. That is, if we postulate that the entire revelation of the angels was merely a prophetic vision, how could the people of Sedom have attempted to harm the angels? Were the people of Sedom able to take part in a prophetic vision?
The answer is that a straightforward reading of the passage implies that the Rambam was right. Look at the verses related to Sedom:
"And G-d rained down on Sedom and on Amora sulfur and fire, from G-d, from heaven. And He overturned these cities, and the entire square, and all the dwellers of the cities, and the plants of the earth. And his wife looked in back of him, and she became a pillar of salt. And Avraham woke up early in the morning." [Bereishit 19:24-27].
This is indeed a surprising end! It would seem that the entire events of overturning Sedom, the visit of the angels, and saving Lot, took place in a prophetic dream by Avraham, at the same time as the cities were physically destroyed. Based on this, we can better understand the Rambam's approach. The vision of the descent of the angels into Sedom can now be seen as an attempt by G-d to allow Avraham to participate in the decree against Sedom, when in his dream he saw how the people there would have treated the angels if they had in fact physically come to the city.
We must also add a note about the remarkable approach to this story by Ralbag. In his opinion, on principle no miracle can take place without the participation of a human prophet. He therefore explains that the three men who came to Avraham were men – that is, prophets. They came to tell the news about Sarah's pregnancy and the judgment against the people of Sedom. These men were called "angels" as a proper sign of respect for the heavenly prophets of G-d.
Source: "AS SHABBAT APPROACHES" – a biweekly column in Shabbat B'Shabbato, Vayeira 5773, Volume 1447. (Zomet Institute) See: www.zomet.org.il/eng