Advice From The Dawn of Time

G-d appeared to Avraham in the field of his friend Mamre.
Rashi informs us that Mamre’s name is mentioned here as a reward for advising
Avraham concerning bris milah. But, as the commentators ask, Why did
Avraham need advice? And if he did need advice, why did he ask three non-Jews—Aner,
Eshkol and Mamre? Why not his teachers, Shem and Ever? Or his learned servant,
Eliezer?

There is an opinion that we are reading Rashi incorrectly. He
doesn’t mean that Avraham asked advice, for eitzah. Rather, he asked for
atzah, a drug used to speed the healing after circumcision.

But Rashi had an old edition of Midrash Tanchuma, which says
at the end of Lech Lecha that when Avraham was given the mitzvah, he went
to ask his friends what to do. Aner told him: “You’re ninety-nine years old. If
you go through with this operation, you’re a dead man, you’ll never survive.”
Eshkol told him “If you survive at all, you’ll be left in a weakened condition.
The four kings that you conquered have a lot of relatives that don’t like you.
They’ll come and destroy you.” Mamre said, “G-d saved you from the fiery furnace
and the four kings. You should do what He tells you. If He saved you before,
He’ll protect you from harm this time, too.” Since Mamre gave him good advice,
G-d appeared in his portion.

But why did Avraham have to ask advice? Did he have doubts
about whether he had to follow G-d’s command? And why these three people?
Thirdly, why weren’t Aner and Eshkol punished for trying to dissuade him from
doing it? And finally, if he was really interested in the advice, why didn’t he
listen to the majority, who told him not to?

The Gemora says that there is a reason to ask advice even of
someone lower than you. We derive this from the verse in Bereishis: “Let us make
man.” G-d consulted with the angels to teach us this lesson. But it doesn’t seem
to make sense. If I am having trouble with my car, and I don’t know much about
cars, should I ask help in fixing it from someone who knows even less than I do?
Is it just to make him feel good? But since he’ll find out in the end that I
ignored what he said, what’s the point?

In his commentary to Mishlei, the Meiri explains that the
idea of asking advice is not just asking for information. Advice means that even
when I know what to do, there’s still a reason to solicit another opinion. After
they asked the Urim v’Tumim, they went to Achitofel for advice. What for?
The Urim V’Tumim had already told them what to do! The answer is that
advice is not only about should I do it, but how should I do it.
What should I think when I do it? What’s the right perspective? Avraham asked
his friends for another perspective, a perspective that only someone else could
offer.

One of the reasons that Nadav and Avihu were punished was for
not having taken counsel with each other. It seems absurd. Nadav came to the
conclusion that it was right to bring the “strange fire.” Avihu came to the same
conclusion. What would it have helped to ask each other? What would have
changed? The answer is that it would have changed a lot. Because aitzeh
does not mean that the advice-giver asks himself what he would do in that
situation. That way he merely puts his own bias into it, which is no better.
Rather, the person has to say, what would I do if I were him? I put myself into
his shoes, but without his bias, because I’m not him. That’s a real aitzah.
If Nadav and Avihu would have done that for each other, they would have told
each other to abandon the idea.

That’s the idea of asking advice, even of someone who knows
less than you, to get an unbiased perspective. Avraham didn’t want to know if he
should do the mitzvah; he was commanded by G-d to do so. But he wanted to know
how someone without his bias saw it. Shem, Ever and Eliezer had no experience
with bris. But Aner, Eshkol and Mamre were ba’alei bris Avraham.
They had made a covenant with Avraham, so they could understand his situation.
Aner and Eshkol could only tell him what they would do if they were in
his shoes. Only Mamre said, “If I were Avraham, what would I do? If G‑d saved me
so miraculously from death in the past, there is nothing to fear.” He was the
only one who gave him real advice. And that’s why the other two weren’t punished
for giving bad advice; because it wasn’t advice at all