By Rabbi Fred V. Davidow
A basic theme in Judaism is that practical good deeds are more important than abstract spiritual enjoyment.
Naomi Rosenblatt, psychotherapist and Bible teacher, wrote about the opening scene of Vayeira in her book, Wrestling with Angels: “This scene illustrates an often-expressed rabbinical sentiment about how we draw close to God: not by sequestering ourselves on mountaintop retreats or communing with our souls in the splendid isolation of meditation, but by tending to the everyday needs of others, face-to-face, in the most ordinary of settings.”
Our sages developed methods of interpretation that drew inferences from the way in which verses were arranged or by the use and repetition of key words.
The Torah does not state explicitly that it is a mitzvah to visit the sick, though visiting the sick is considered in the Talmud to be one of the 10 most-desirable moral duties (Shabbat 127a). The rabbis drew the inference about the duty of visiting the sick from the juxtaposition of two verses.
Near the end of Genesis 17, Abraham circumcises himself, Ishmael and all the male servants in his household. Genesis 18 opens with Abraham resting in the heat of the day under the shade of trees. He’s recovering from his circumcision and he’s sitting quietly at the entrance to his tent. The very first verse of Chapter 18 states: “The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre when he was sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day.” The rabbis connected the opening of Genesis 18 with the end of Genesis 17 and deduced the duty of visiting the sick (Sotah 14a).
A couple of days have passed since his circumcision and Abraham, instead of staying inside the tent, is sitting at the entrance. Why in that spot instead of inside? Because Abraham, even while he was recovering, was watching for travelers to offer them hospitality. Torah does not state that Abraham was noted for giving hospitality. This conclusion is inferred from his act of sitting at the tent flap, waiting to bring in wayfarers.
Three men suddenly appear. At once, Abraham rises to greet them. Either the pain from the circumcision has subsided or his will to be hospitable overrides his discomfort. The Torah does not state that Abraham was eager and enthusiastic. The Torah rarely tells us about how anybody feels. The Torah lets actions speak for themselves. Abraham’s attitude is communicated through verbs of rapid movement that describe how Abraham and his household go about preparing a meal for the three strangers. “He ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them.” “Abraham hastened into the tent of Sarah and said, ‘Hurry, knead flour and bake loaves.’” “Then Abraham ran to the herd and fetched a calf … and gave it to a servant-boy who hastened to prepare it.” The flurry of activity shows how eager Abraham is to treat the strangers graciously.
Abraham makes a humble offer to the guests. “Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves and then you can continue your journey.” Like a person of worth, Abraham says little and does much. Abraham serves a veritable feast with the choicest food items. He personally waits on the three strangers as they partake in this rich fare. He does not eat with them but stands close by, as would a servant, ready to attend to their needs. When the travelers arise to resume their journey, Abraham accompanies them a short way to send them off in the right direction.
Rosenblatt writes, “Nothing in the text suggests that Abraham recognizes the three strangers” as God’s messengers, as they are later revealed to be. “He is simply responding in character to the appearance of three strangers in his camp — which is precisely what makes Abraham’s behavior so extraordinary. Abraham reaches out to these men because he recognizes the face of God in everyone he meets, because he perceives all humans as created in God’s image.”
If Abraham had perceived that God was disguised as one of these messengers or was speaking through one of them to announce that Sarah, who was past childbearing years, was going to conceive and bear a son as a fulfillment of God’s promise, the value of the hospitality Abraham extended to the strangers would have been vitiated. Abraham’s behavior would be seen as simply quid pro quo. “God, you are now going to fulfill your promise. Well, let me show you how well I can feed your messengers.”
Abraham did not linger for a moment in mystic communion with God, nor nurse his pain from the circumcision. He ran to attend to the practical tasks of making welcome some tired and weary travelers, who needed relief, rest and a repast.
The Karliner Hasidim are known for their hospitality. It’s possible that this virtue can be traced to their founder, Aaron Perlov (1736-1772). One terrible winter night, Perlov, freezing and starving, entered a village where only one Jewish family lived among the peasants. When Perlov asked for shelter at this Jewish home, he was not recognized as the Karliner. Admission was delayed while the rabbi’s attendants exchanged words with the householder’s servants. When the former finally proved the identity of Perlov, he was admitted and well fed.
Perlov related to his hasidim that he learned from this experience why the sages attributed great merit to a person who was hospitable. He said, “When the Shekhinah finds the door barred, it returns to heaven and no harm is done, save only to the unwilling host. With man it is different; if denied access, he may perish.” Perlov emphasized his point by allusion to the Talmudic proverb that “hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Shekhinah” (Shabbat 127a).
The story upon which this proverb is based is Abraham cutting short God’s visit in order to welcome the strangers. From the opening scene in Genesis 18, Abraham became the role model par excellence for hospitality in Judaism.
Rabbi Fred Davidow is the chaplain at Glendale Uptown Home. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.