Hot off the Press

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Vayeira
Hot off the Press

There he was. Avraham Avinu, in excruciating pain on the third day after his circumcision, sitting outside the entrance of his home basking in the healing heat of the sun. Avraham was also basking in the Presence of his most illustrious guest, God Himself, Who was visiting an ill and weakened Avraham. Suddenly, three people, angels disguised as Arabs, passed by.

What an opportunity. Avraham, who had dedicated his life to hospitality, was being provided with another chance at doing what he loved most; tending to the needs of his visitors. Guests were not easy to come by on that day. Most people were not venturing outside because of the blazing heat wave that relentlessly wore on.

Divinely orchestrated, the all-time temperature high was designed to keep passersby away so that Avraham would not exert himself, and thus recover from his procedure. However, the lack of people with whom Avraham could reach out to caused him more pain than the wound on his body. So, Hashem sent Avraham guests who could withstand the intolerable conditions outside.

The stage had been set. Avraham was preoccupied with the mitzvah of greeting the Divine Presence when, unexpectedly, the mitzvah of hospitality presented itself to him. What would we have done? Completely ignore the guests and continue respecting the Presence of God by giving Him our undivided attention or turn our backs on God in order to provide for people who sought our assistance with food, beverage, and lodging?

Surprisingly, Avraham jumped into action by running to provide for his new guests, leaving the Shechinah (Divine Presence) alone and abandoned. Remarkably, Avraham was not punished for this seeming disrespect. On the contrary, we learn from Avraham that the mitzvah of hospitality overrides the mitzvah of greeting the Divine Presence (Shabbos, chap. 18, "Mifanin", pg. 127a, Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav).

Although we learn this lesson from Avraham, where did Avraham learn it from? Wasn't he taking a chance by deserting the Shechinah? There was at least a doubt about how to respond. As such, wouldn't it have been better for Avraham to be passive and remain seated than to actively run to assist the guests?

There are several approaches which resolve this matter. In the paragraphs below, we will share four answers to this question.

Firstly, Rav Nasan Adler quotes Rebbi Meir from Premishlan who says that Avraham had sanctified his body to such a degree that it was trained to do God's will automatically. Avraham was sitting in reverence of God when, shockingly, his feet suddenly lifted his body and began running towards the three guests. From his own body's reaction, Avraham realized that this was the appropriate response. As he ran away from the Shechinah, Avraham called back and basically said, "Please my Lord, do not leave. Wait until I attend to the needs of the guests. I'll be right back."

The Shvilei Pinchas answers our question in a second way, based on a teaching from the Apter Rebbe who expanded on a Midrash Rabba (64:4, Rebbi Berachia in the name of Rebbi Yehudah; Job 37:2; Josh. 1:8). Essentially, God, in His Heavenly court, brings forth new halachos (laws) every single day. These new halachos are new hanhagos (ways of conduct) that a Torah Jew should follow when faced with a new set of circumstances that arise. When God brings out these new halachos in Heaven, it breaks the ice and paves the way for those very halachos to be perceived by Torah scholars below on Earth.

On the third day after his circumcision, God brought forth a new halachah which dictated that the mitzvah of hospitality overrides the mitzvah of receiving the Divine Presence. God revealed that halachah specifically on that day because a new situation was going to arise that had not been experienced since the time of creation. Until Avraham Avinu, nobody was ever confronted by a tension between the two mitzvos of greeting the Divine Presence and hospitality. On that day, Hashem revealed the law that hospitality overrides the Divine so that Avraham, a Torah scholar, would be privy of it and thus know how to behave properly. This was how Avraham knew what to do.

The Shvilei Pinchas entertains a third way of addressing our question. Avraham figured out the halachah from circumstantial evidence. On the one hand, Avraham saw that Hashem came to visit him. On the other hand, Avraham saw that God had sent him guests so that he could fulfil his favorite mitzvah of hospitality. Avraham said to himself that the mitzvah of hospitality must override the mitzvah of greeting the Divine Presence because if it did not, the Divine Presence would have left, enabling Avraham to fulfil the mitzvah of hospitality without there being a conflict. By remaining with Avraham and simultaneously sending guests, Avraham deduced that the Divine Presence was hinting to Avraham that it was ok for him to tend to the guests. Hashem would be waiting for him until he returned.

The Arvei Nachal (Rabbi Dovid Shlomo Eibenschutz, b. 1755 Ukraine, d. 1813 Safed) provides a fourth way of answering our question. He points to a Midrash Rabba (8:2) that says that the Torah preexisted creation by two thousand years (Pro. 8:30; Psa. 90:4). How are we to understand this? The Torah contains all the stories about Adam, Eve, Noach, the Patriarchs, and the Jews in the wilderness. Were all those stories actually written down before they happened? Did those people have free choice or was everything predetermined, forced to follow the script?

The Arvei Nachal says that the Torah in Heaven has the same letters as the Torah on Earth, however, the arrangement of those letters is different. Although the Heavenly arrangement of Torah letters makes sense to angels in that dimension and have applications to them, most human beings cannot understand that Heavenly Torah because that Torah appears confused, mixed up, and out of order to us. When God gave to Torah to the Jewish people, He rearranged the letters so that they formed words, sentences, paragraphs, stories, and laws that make sense to us in this world.

At first, when Avraham was confronted with the two mitzvos of greeting the Divine Presence and hospitality, he did not know what to do. So, what did he do? Using his prophetic powers, Avraham peeked into the Heavenly Torah. After all, the Torah at that time was only in Heaven. Avraham could decipher its meaning and saw that the law was to prefer the guests over the Divine Presence.

This explains the double wording of a verse in our parsha. It says, "And Avraham lifted his eyes and SAW, and behold three men were standing over him, and he SAW and he ran to greet them" (Gn. 18:2). Why was it necessary to say that Avraham SAW two times? The verse could have just said it once and we would have understood. Rashi has one answer, however, the Arvei Nachal suggests that the first time it says that he SAW, it was referring to seeing the guests. After Avraham SAW the guests, he was not sure what to do. So, what did he do? By mustering his prophetic powers, he SAW into the Heavenly Torah, decoded it and found his answer.

Although Avraham was aware of this halachah, the angels were not. This is evident from the fact that the angels were about to leave as quickly as they came. We know that the angels wanted to leave abruptly because Avraham spoke to the highest-ranking angel asking him not to leave. If the most important guest would remain, then certainly the other two would stay as well (Rashi, Gn. 18:3; Bereishis Rabba, 48:10, Rebbi Chiya).

The inference from that request implies that they were just about to leave. The reason for their haste was that they saw Avraham concentrating on the Shechinah. The angels thought that Avraham had a responsibility to God first. Therefore, they reasoned, that there was no room for them to be tended to as guests. The angels decided leave now and come back later.

The angels were not able to tap in to the new law that God had brought forth that day. The angels were not even able to derive the halachah from the Torah that they had access to in Heaven.

However, when Avraham ran to assist them, the angels noticed that God's Divine Presence did not leave. They also detected that God was not angry at Avraham. Only then did they realize that the halachah prefers the needs of guests more than the respect demanded by the Shechinah.

It was then that the angels understood that Avraham was on a much higher spiritual level than they were. No longer were they "standing over him" (Gn. 18:2), Rather, "He stood over them" (Gn. 18:8; Bereishis Rabba, 48:14).

I do not think it random that Avraham became privy of the halachah and hanhagah specifically when it came time to do the mitzvah of hospitality. This is not arbitrary. It teaches us a powerful lesson. Hashem will treat us in the fashion that we treat others. Only when we learn to give to others, will God give to us as well.

We would all love to be knowledgeable with respect to new halachos that God brings forth daily. Who wouldn't want to be able to peek into a Heavenly Torah and decipher its hidden meaning? We all desire deeper levels of understanding. This episode in the Torah teaches us one way of achieving this goal. We must try to improve ourselves by reaching out to others, giving them as much as we can. Then Hahsem will reciprocate by giving to us as well.

A practical implementation of this teaching would be to work on perfecting our Hachnasas Orchim (hospitality). It can be complicated. Different people have different needs. Who do we invite into our homes? Only friends with whom we feel comfortable with, or even people we feel awkward with? How often do we invite people over? Only when it's convenient for us, or even when it's a little hard? How do we treat our guests? Do we behave like a boss towards an employee or do we make people feel comfortable? What type of atmosphere do we create?

As we refine ourselves even more by giving properly in this area, we will, please God, become recipients of God's gift which is a keen awareness of even deeper Torah concepts. This was the case with Avraham. This can be the case with us as well.

So, may we all be blessed to have the Shechinah dwell in our homes by reaching out to others in hospitality, and thus receive the deepest daily novel Torah teachings by God Himself, and thus infuse our world with new spiritual energy.