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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeira: Treating strangers with kindness
It seems strange that the Torah does not mention why G'd appeared to Abraham. G'd revealed Himself to Abraham to visit him, since he was sick after his circumcision. Abraham had made it his life's mission to do acts of kindness, especially looking after travelling strangers and providing them with meals. Abraham's longing and eagerness to perform acts of kindness 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. Our obligation to show G'd honour and respect is not for G'd's benefit, but for ours. G'd has "pleasure" when we take an interest and look after His creations. 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 we are able to follow in his footsteps and show a genuine interest in our fellow human beings as worthy descendants of this giant of kindness.
G'd's purpose not mentioned
In the beginning of this week's parasha, G'd appears to Abraham who is sitting at the entrance of his tent on a very hot day. The Torah does not tell us why G'd appeared to Abraham but continues and describes how Abraham suddenly notices three strangers passing by. This seems very strange.
Visiting the sick
The truth is that G'd did not reveal Himself to Abraham to instruct him what to do or to teach him a new mitzvah. Neither did G'd appear to reveal any future events. Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sotah 14a) that G'd simply came to visit Abraham who was sick after his circumcision. This was the third day after Abraham's circumcision, and G'd came to inquire to his welfare as he was in great pain (see Bava Metzia 86b). The Talmud teaches that this is one of the ways how we can fulfill the commandment (Devarim 18:5): "You shall follow after HASHEM your G'd." This, says the Talmud, means that we shall emulate G'd's acts of kindness: "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."
When Abraham saw the three strangers, it put him 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, the three strangers could no doubt do with a rest and a meal on such a hot day. Even more, this was the opportunity to invite visitors that Abraham had been waiting for. Abraham could not imagine that a day would go by without performing an act of kindness. He personified what the Chofetz Chaim used to teach; just as we are obligated to fix time for Torah study every day, we must make sure to do an act of kindness on a daily basis. The Chofetz Chaim wrote a book where he explains in detail our obligation to perform acts of kindness. Based on the words of the Prophet Michah (6:8): "And what does G'd expect of you … to love [to do acts of] kindness …", he called this book Ahavas Chesed (Love Kindness). The Chofetz Chaim explains (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 kindness and look for opportunities to do so. The Midrash Rabba (54:6) describes how Abraham had made it his life's mission to do acts of kindness, 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 all our needs.
Despite Abraham's great pain on the third day after his circumcision, he went out to sit at the entrance of his tent. He hoped that he would find some travelers who would be on the road, despite the intense heat. As a matter of fact, G'd had specially brought about the heat in order to prevent Abraham from exerting himself to look after visitors. However, Abraham's longing and eagerness to perform acts of kindness was so strong, that he was more pained by the absence of visitors than by his physical discomfort from the circumcision.
Strangers greater than Divine revelation
Now that Abraham was able to invite visitors, he had to make a quick decision, whether to stay with his Divine "guest" or tend to the travelers. 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.'" The Talmud (Shabbos 127a) states that this teaches us that tending to the needs of strangers is greater than accepting a Divine revelation. The Talmud continues that although it would not be proper for someone to ask a great personality to wait, 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 learn or pray. On this basis, the Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed 3:1) rules that there can be a situation where someone is on the way to shul and sees some visitors who need help. Tending to their needs may take priority over going to shul.
Put G'd on hold?
This seems strange. If it is not proper to ask a fellow human to wait, how can it be acceptable to ask G'd to wait? The answer may be that Abraham, who merited a Divine revelation, was not honouring G'd. On the contrary, G'd was honouring Abraham. The same applies when we study Torah and pray to G'd. We are not doing anything for G'd. Rather, we are utilizing an opportunity G'd gave us. Any honour or respect that we show G'd does not add anything to G'd. As we say in the Adon Olam prayer: "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 effect on Him. Any obligation we have to show G'd honour and respect is not for His benefit, but for our benefit, as we will be rewarded when we follow His instructions.
Obviously, parents have tremendous pleasure when they see someone who looks after the needs of their children. Similarly, artists enjoy when people appreciate their artistic creation. In the same way, G'd takes "pleasure" when we take an interest and look after our fellow humans. For every human being is G'd's creation, created in His image. This is why G'd allows us to give priority to look after the needs of other people before showing our respect for G'd.
Our sages teach that Abraham fulfilled every commandment in the Torah, as he understood his purpose and mission in life (see Rashi Bereishis 26:5). However, the Chofetz Chaim (Ahava Chesed 3:2) points out that the only detailed description in the Torah, of how he fulfilled the commandments, is when the Torah relates how he looked after his visitors. This, says the Chofetz Chaim, comes to teach us the importance and significance of doing acts of kindness in general, and taking care of strangers in particular.
We may not be able to live up to the high standards of Abraham, who exerted himself while suffering from physical pain. Nevertheless, the Torah describes Abraham's conduct to inspire us, his offspring, for all 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 follow in his footsteps and show a genuine interest in our fellow human beings as worthy descendants of this giant of kindness.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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