And the Lord appeared unto him in the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day; and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, three men stood over against him…
In the Torah portion Vayeira, three men appeared to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent. The Talmud states that these three men were angels: Michael, Gabriel, and Rafael. Michael came to tell that Sarah will give birth to a son; Raphael came to heal Abraham after his circumcision; and Gabriel came to destroy Sodom. However, on a metaphorical level, it appears to me that these three angels personify three aspects of time: past, present, and future.
Here are several clues that hint at the connection between these angels and time. The very last word in the previous verse is yom, i.e., “day.” Day, of course, is a unit of time. The next clue comes from the verse that follows: “Let now a little water be fetched…” (Genesis 18:4) – as I wrote in my recent post, “Noah’s Ark – Sailing through the Flood of Time,” water is a metaphor for the time-flux (the flow of time).
The tree angels themselves hint at the three aspects of time. Archangel Michael came to foretell the future that Sarah will give birth to a son. In the Scriptures, Daniel is informed that Michael will arise during the “time of the end.” ( Daniel 12:1) Thus Michael, at least in this narrative, represents the future. Archangel Gabriel came to punish the people of Sodom for their past sins. Thus, he represents the past. Raphael came to heal Abraham, which can only be done in the present time. Thus, Raphael represents here the present.
On the other hand, as I wrote in my post, “Abraham Meets Abraham from a Parallel Universe,” Zohar identifies the three men as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. These three patriarchs embody and personify respectively the sefirot of Chesed, Gevurah, and Tiferet. These three sefirot from the second sefirotic triad draw are rooted in their higher counterparts from the first sefirotic triad: Chokhmah, Binah, and Da’at. However, as it is stated in the Sefer Yetzirah, these three sefirot represent respectively past, future, and present. Thus, we could say that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob alluded to the past, future, and present. And, as three patriarchs are linked by Zohar with the three angels, we can say that Michael, Gabriel, and Rafael allude to the three aspects of time.
Lastly, the first verse of this Torah portion mentions gratuitously that Abraham “sat in the entrance of the tent.” What is the significance of that? As I explained in the post, “Mezuzah and Time,” the two doorposts and the lintel of the doorway represent the three aspects of time: past, future, and present. The third Rebbe of Chabad, Menachem Mendel, the Tzemach Tzedek, explains that two doorposts and the lintel symbolize Avraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This completes the circle.
Based on the above, I suggest that the three visitors appearing to Abraham in the plains of Mamre symbolize the three aspects of time: past, present, and future.
It is noteworthy, that Abraham merited this revelation only after he had circumcised himself. When a Jew performs today a commandment of brit milah, the circumcision (which could only be done in the present) he connects himself to the Covenant of our Patriarch Abraham (the past) and assures the continuity of the Jewish people (the future).