“And [Avraham] lifted his eyes and he saw, and behold three men were standing on top of him, and he saw, and he ran to greet them” (B’reishis 18:2). A simple reading of this verse raises two issues. First of all, why does it say “Avraham saw” twice; what did he “see” the second time that he hadn’t “seen” initially? Secondly, if these men (actually angels who appeared as men so that Avraham could fulfill the mitzvah of hosting guests, see Rashi on 18:1) were “standing on top of him,” i.e. right in front of him, why would Avraham have to “run” anywhere in order to greet them?
Rashi addresses both issues, telling us that the term “on top of him” is not meant literally, as they weren’t near Avraham at all. Rather, the term “above” is used in deference to the angels. Since they weren’t really close to him, he had to “run” to where they were in order to invite them in. As far as Avraham “seeing” twice, Rashi says the first is meant literally, that he saw the men from afar, while the second refers to his “understanding” what was happening; the three men were just standing there and weren’t coming any closer because they didn’t want to bother him, so Avraham “ran to greet them” to invite them in. Although this answers the questions, Rashi (in our editions) doesn’t stop there, but adds a couple of more thoughts, thoughts that seem problematic.
After telling us that Avraham realized the “men” didn’t want to cause him to go out of their way for him, Rashi continues by saying, “and even though they knew that he went out to greet them, they stood where they were to honor him and to show him that they didn’t want to bother him, and he preemptively (presumably before they could try to leave) ran towards them.” There is then a note inserted telling us that this is the text in an old edition of Rashi, without indicating which part of the text was added based on this edition. From Rabbi Chaim Dov Chavel’s edition of Rashi (Mossad HaRav Kook), which doesn’t include most of the additional words I just quoted (nor does he indicate that they appear in any other editions), it would seem that the only words from this part that were not added by the publisher whose edition of Rashi was used for our text are “and he preemptively ran towards them.” If we take out the “added” words, Rashi’s comment pertaining to the word “and he saw” appearing twice — as it appears in the first edition of Rashi — reads “he saw that they were standing in one place and understood that they didn’t want to bother him [so] he preemptively ran to greet them.” [This matches the way Sefer Yosef Hallel contrasts the first edition of Rashi with ours.] The inserted words would seem to be trying to explain why the men/angels just stood there while Avraham ran to them, rather than moving towards Avraham to save him from having to run all the way to them. Nevertheless, the answer it provides doesn’t sit well. After all, how could it be considered giving honor to Avraham by just staying there, if doing so caused him to exert himself even more? They didn’t resist returning with him to his tent, so weren’t saving him from any exertion by staying put. Instead, they caused a 99 year old man who was recovering from circumcision to run all the way to them. Some “honor”!
[This reminds me of a dilemma I (and my co-workers) face on a regular basis. You see, there is a security door between the newsroom and the hallway leading to/from the lunchroom, along which are the restrooms. Which means that in order to re-enter the newsroom (or to get to the studios), we have to go two steps to the right of the door, take out our electronic ID card, hold it next to the electronic reader, and then take two steps left to open the (now unlocked) door. Not the biggest of deals, but not as easy as just walking straight to the door and opening it. Often times, after going through the process of opening the door, a co-worker enters the hallway, and the person who just opened the door has to decide whether to hold the door open until the other person gets there, or to just keep walking and let the co-worker go through the process too. And there is a good reason not to wait the few seconds until the other person gets there, as inevitably they feel bad that they are “making” someone wait (even though they didn’t ask the person to do so), and run down the hallway to get there faster. Which means instead of doing a favor by saving someone from having to open the door themselves, holding the door open causes them to exert themselves more than had they had to open the door! So what should the “lead” person do? Walk in without waiting so as not to cause the other person to run, or wait for them even though it really make things harder for them? Ultimately, the answer seems to be to wait, as despite it causing one person to have to wait and the other to run, it makes both recognize that the other is willing to go out of his or her way for them, thereby increasing camaraderie, making it worth the extra time/effort. In the case of Avraham and the angels, though, how could they have just stood their ground once they saw Avraham coming towards them? He had already realized that they didn’t want to bother him, and making him run the whole way would not increase the “honor“ being paid to him!]
The “inserted” words not being Rashi’s may negate the need to explain them, but we are still left with the issue they tried to resolve; why did the men/angels stay where they were once they saw that Avraham was running towards them? The truth is, we don’t know that they didn’t move towards Avraham once they saw him running towards them. All we know is that they had been standing when Avraham saw them; why assume that they waited there and let Avraham run all the way to where they were? Nevertheless, taking a closer look at the how our text of Rashi continues may tell us why they waited.
The inserted words discussed above aren’t the only words added to this Rashi (the next set of added words do appear in Chavel’s edition, albeit within brackets and with a note telling us that they are not in the first published editions of Rashi); the Talmud is then referenced in order to provide another answer to the questions posed above. In Bava M’tziya (86a), the Talmud discusses how the men could be standing “on top of Avraham” if he had to run to get to where they were. In our editions of Rashi, the Talmud is quoted as saying that when they saw Avraham loosening and tightening his bandage, they moved away from him, so Avraham ran towards them to bring them back. This would explain how they could have been “on top of him” (as originally they were) yet he had to run towards them (as they moved away), and could also explain why it says “he saw” twice; once when he saw them standing right outside his tent and then again when he saw that they had moved away. [It is interesting that Rashi provides his own answers to these questions, rather than quoting the Talmud’s answer.] Nevertheless, there are now other issues to deal with (issues that would not explain why Rashi didn’t really quote the Talmud).
For one thing, since G-d had sent the angels to Avraham in the first place, how could they decide to move away and not fulfill their mission? Didn’t they realize that G-d knew Avraham’s condition and had sent them anyway? Additionally, how could they have seen Avraham changing the dressing of his bandage from outside the tent? Wouldn’t Avraham have done this privately? How could they have peered inside to see it happening? However, not only does this Talmudic reference not appear in the early editions of Rashi (as further evidence of this, see Mizrachi, who quotes an alternative approach to Rashi — the Talmud!), but the added “Talmudic quote” is actually a misquote. And a careful reading of the Talmud will deal with the issues I raised.
The Talmud says that G-d Himself visited Avraham (“bikur cholim,” see Rashi on 18:1), and it was G-d who “saw Avraham tying and loosening his bandage,” not the angels. Avraham was changing the dressing in private, and no person could see him doing so (especially if they were outside the tent), but G-d obviously could “see” what was going on. And since it was inappropriate to stay there while this was happening, G-d moved away. When the angels saw that G-d had moved away, they also moved away, as it was inappropriate to visit the sick while they are suffering. The Talmud doesn’t say that the angels saw Avraham changing his dressing, only that they knew he was suffering. And even though G-d had commanded them to go to Avraham, when they saw G-d Himself move away (likely how they knew Avraham must be suffering), they took His lead and also moved away.
Avraham saw the angels when they first arrived, right outside his tent, and then saw them moving away, so ran after them. The angels saw that G-d wasn’t moving back towards Avraham, so couldn’t move back either. The Talmud answers the questions raised above, without raising additional issues. And so does Rashi, without relying on the Aggadah.