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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira: Treating strangers with lovingkindness

Summary

It seems strange that the Torah does not mention G'd's purpose for appearing to Abraham. G'd's revelation to Abraham was an act of lovingkindness of visiting the sick. Abraham had made it his life's mission to do acts of lovingkindness, especially looking after travelling strangers and providing them with meals. Abraham's longing and eagerness to perform acts of lovingkindness was so strong that he was more pained by the absence of visitors than by his physical situation due to his circumcision. Tending to the needs of strangers is greater than accepting a Divine revelation. Any obligation to show G'd honour and respect is not for G'd's benefit, but for the benefit of the person who follows His commandments. G'd takes "pleasure" when a person takes an interest and looks after his fellow human being. The only detailed description in the Torah of how Abraham fulfilled the commandments of the Torah is the description of how he looked after his visitors. We may not be able to fully emulate Abraham's conduct but everyone is able to follow in his footsteps and show a genuine interest in our fellow human beings as a worthy descendant of this giant of lovingkindness.

G'd's purpose not mentioned

In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, G'd appears to Abraham who is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the intense heat of a very hot day. The Torah continues and relates how Abraham suddenly sees three strangers passing by and he runs towards them to invite them into his tent. It seems strange that the Torah does not tell us what G'd had to say to Abraham when He appeared to him. Obviously, G'd had a purpose why He showed Himself to Abraham. So why is that purpose not mentioned?

Visiting the sick

Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sotah 14a) that G'd came to visit Abraham who was sick and very weak. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) explains that this was the third day after Abraham's circumcision and G'd came to inquire to his welfare as he was in great pain. G'd did not reveal Himself to Abraham to instruct him what to do or to teach him a new law. Neither did G'd appear to reveal any future events. G'd revealed Himself to Abraham just to perform an act of lovingkindness of visiting the sick. The Talmud (Sotah 14a) actually uses this as one of the examples when it teaches the meaning of the Torah's commandment (Devarim 18:5): "You shall follow after HASHEM your G'd." Says the Talmud, the Torah here instructs us to emulate G'd's acts of lovingkindness: "Just as G'd dresses the naked so shall you, just as G'd visits the sick so shall you, just as G'd comforts the mourners so shall you and just as G'd buries the dead so shall you."

True Provider

While Abraham experienced this Divine revelation, he suddenly saw the three strangers passing by. This put Abraham in a great dilemma. On the one hand, he was being greatly honoured by G'd Who had come to "see" how he was feeling. On the other hand, there were three unknown strangers who no doubt could do with a rest and a meal on such a hot day. This was his opportunity to offer hospitality to visitors that Abraham had been waiting for, so that the day would not go by without performing an act of lovingkindness. This is a classic example of what the Chofetz Chaim taught; just as a person is obligated to fix time for Torah study every day, one should make sure to do some act of lovingkindness on a daily basis. Abraham personified the words of the Prophet Micah (6:8): "And what does G'd expect of you but to do justice and to love [to do acts of] kindness and to be modest in your ways " The Chofetz Chaim wrote a full volume to explain in detail every person's obligation to perform acts of kindness. Based on the above verse, he called this book Ahavas Chesed (Love Kindness) and he explains there (2:1) that the prophet instructs us in the name of G'd that it is not sufficient that we are ready to do kind deeds when they present themselves. Rather, we have to develop a love for doing lovingkindness and look for opportunities to do so. The Midrash Rabba (54:6) explains how Abraham had made it his life's mission to do acts of lovingkindness, especially looking after travelling strangers and offering them meals. He utilized this to teach his guests about the existence of G'd and how He is the true provider for every individual's needs.

Great pain

Despite his great pain on this third day after his circumcision, Abraham went out to sit at the entrance of his tent. He hoped that he would find some travelers who would be on the road even though it was an extremely hot day. As a matter of fact, G'd had brought about the high temperatures so as to prevent Abraham from exerting himself by looking after visitors. However, Abraham's longing and eagerness to perform acts of lovingkindness was so strong that he was more pained by the absence of visitors than by his physical pain from the circumcision.

Strangers greater than Divine revelation

Now that the travelers were passing by, Abraham had to make a quick decision whether to stay with his Divine "guest" or tend to his earthly visitors. As amazing as it may sound, Abraham decided to ask G'd to wait while he was tending to the needs of the travelers. As it says (Bereishis 18:3): "And he said, 'My Master, please if I find favour in Your eyes, please do not go away from Your servant.'" Not only did Abraham make this decision, the Talmud (Shabbos 127a) learns from this that tending to the needs of strangers is greater than accepting a Divine revelation. The Talmud continues to say that although it would not be proper for someone to say to a great personality "please wait till I have time for you", G'd allows this kind of conduct with respect to Himself. Similarly, the Talmud (ibid) teaches that it is more important to look after visitors than to go to the Beis Hamidrash to learn or pray. On this basis, the Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed 3:1) rules that if someone is on the way to the shul and sees some strangers, and no one is available to look after them, tending to their needs takes priority over going to shul.

Put G'd on hold?

The question arises, if it is not proper conduct putting a great human personality on hold, how can it be the proper conduct towards G'd? The answer may be that a person who merits Divine revelation is not honouring G'd. On the contrary, G'd is honouring this person by revealing Himself to him. In the same way, when we study Torah and pray to G'd, in reality we are not doing anything for G'd but for ourselves. In addition to this, explains the Maharal (Commentary on Shabbos 127a), every human being is G'd's creation. As the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:18) says: "Man is dear for he is created in G'd's image." Any honour of respect that we show G'd does not add anything to G'd Himself. As we say in the Adon Olam: "Master of the universe, Who reigned before anyone was created and after everything has ceased to be, He alone will reign in awesomeness." We have nothing to give G'd, and we cannot take anything away from G'd, neither respect nor disrespect has any affect on Him. Any obligation we have to show G'd honour and respect is not for His benefit, but for our benefit as we follow His commandments.

G'd's pleasure

On the other hand, just like a parent will have tremendous pleasure from seeing anyone looking after the needs of his children, and an artist will appreciate anyone who cares for his artistic creation, so too G'd takes "pleasure" when a person takes an interest and looks after his fellow human being. For every human being is G'd's creation, created in His image, and is like a child of G'd. This is why G'd allows a person to give priority to look after the needs of other people before showing his respect for G'd.

Detailed description

The Chofetz Chaim (Ahava Chesed 3:2) explains that Abraham fulfilled every commandment in the Torah, as he understood his purpose and mission in life. However, the only detailed description in the Torah of how he fulfilled the commandments is the description of how he looked after his visitors. This, says the Chofetz Chaim, comes to teach us the importance and significance of doing acts of lovingkindness in general, and taking care of strangers in particular.

Role model

Although we may not be able to live up to the very high standards of Abraham, who even exerted himself while suffering from physical pain, nevertheless the Torah describes this conduct as a role model for all future generations. As the Tana D'vei Eliyahu Raba (Chapter 25) says, "Every person is obligated to say, 'when will my deeds reach the deeds of my Patriarchs?'" Even if we cannot fully emulate Abraham's conduct we can all follow in his footsteps and show a genuine interest in our fellow human beings as worthy descendants of this giant of lovingkindness.

These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.


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