ספר בראשית פרק יח
(א) וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְדֹוָד בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם:
- Hashem appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day:
This week’s portion, Vayeira, begins with this verse, which describes a visit by Hashem to Avraham. What prompted this visit, and why is the Torah mentioning the weather (a blistering hot day)?
Rashi explains. Avraham was sick, and Hashem came to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the sick – ביקור חולים.
וירא אליו – לבקר את החולה (ב”מ פו) אמר רבי חמא בר חנינא יום שלישי למילתו היה ובא הקב”ה ושאל בשלומו:
Rabbi Chama Bar Chaninah explains the nature of his sickness. This was the third day after Avraham’s ברית מילה– circumcision, and he was in great pain. Hashem came to pay Avraham a visit to inquire as to his wellbeing.
If Avraham was recuperating from his brit Milah, what was he doing sitting in front of his tent on such a hot day? Rashi explains that Avraham was sitting there to seek travelers who needed food or lodging. Avraham’s tent was a five-star hotel for any traveler in need, as Avraham sought to bestow kindness on as many people as he possibly could. The Torah is teaching us that despite his acute pain, he nevertheless sought out the needy traveler even on such a scorching day.
Hashem had made it so hot because He didn’t want anyone travelling so as not to impose on Avraham who was in such pain.
(ב) וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה:
- He lifted his eyes and saw – And behold! three men were standing over him. He perceived them, so he ran towards them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed toward the ground:
Where did these men come from? Wasn’t it too hot to travel?
Rashi explains that when Hashem saw that the pain of not having guests was greater to Avraham than the pain of his wound, Hashem sent three angels (it was too hot for ordinary people) disguised as regular people to become Avraham’s guests.
As soon as Avraham saw them, he ran to them to invite them to partake of his hospitality. Even though Hashem Himself was then visiting with Avraham, Avraham pardoned himself and left Hashem’s presence to welcome the guests!
The next verse says:
(ג) וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ:
- And he said, “My Lord, if I find favor in Your eyes, please do not leave Your servant.”
Avraham requested that Hashem wait for him while he took care of the guests. Can you imagine?!
Avraham was having the spiritual encounter of a lifetime – speaking with Hashem Himself, yet interrupted it to welcome mortal guests! (To him they looked like ordinary people.)
Rabbi Yehudah quoted Rav who derived from this that it is a greater mitzvah to welcome guests to your home than to speak with Hashem.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קכז.
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב גדולה הכנסת אורחין מהקבלת פני שכינה
How could this be? Isn’t the purpose of all mitzvot to make us more spiritual? Wouldn’t speaking with Hashem make one feel the most spiritual possible? How spiritual a feeling does one get when dealing with guests? Yet, the lesson Avraham taught us is, that having guests is a greater mitzvah.
The question is how did Avraham know that? Who taught this lesson to him? How did he know that this was the correct thing to do and that leaving Hashem to welcome his guests would not be a “slap in the face” to Hashem who came to visit him?
The Talmud records a very interesting story that sheds light on this question. It discusses the question of whether a prince may voluntarily forego his personal honor. Perhaps, because he represents leadership, it is inappropriate for him to act like an ordinary person. To resolve this question the Talmud relates the following incident.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת קידושין דף לב:
מעשה ברבי אליעזר ורבי יהושע ורבי צדוק שהיו מסובין בבית המשתה בנו של רבן גמליאל והיה רבן גמליאל עומד ומשקה עליהם. נתן הכוס לר’ אליעזר ולא נטלו; נתנו לר’ יהושע וקיבלו. אמר לו רבי אליעזר, מה זה יהושע? אנו יושבין ורבן גמליאל ברבי עומד ומשקה עלינו? אמר ליה, “מצינו גדול ממנו ששמש (אברהם גדול ממנו ושמש) אברהם גדול הדור היה, וכתוב בו, ‘והוא עומד עליהם.’ ושמא תאמרו כמלאכי השרת נדמו לו?” לא! נדמו לו אלא לערביים. ואנו לא יהא רבן גמליאל ברבי עומד ומשקה עלינו? אמר להם רבי צדוק, “עד מתי אתם מניחים כבודו של מקום ואתם עוסקים בכבוד הבריות? הקדוש ברוך הוא משיב רוחות ומעלה נשיאים ומוריד מטר ומצמיח אדמה ועורך שולחן לפני כל אחד ואחד ואנו לא יהא רבן גמליאל ברבי עומד ומשקה עלינו?”
Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Tzadok were seated together at Rabban Gamliel’s son’s wedding. Rabban Gamliel, who was the leading sage of the time, and the Prince of the Jewish people, was circulating and pouring l’chaims for his guests. Rabban Gamliel offered a drink to Rabbi Eliezer, but he refused to accept it. He felt that it was inappropriate that Rabban Gamliel serve him. Rabban Gamliel then offered the cup to Rabbi Yehoshua, who accepted it.
Rabbi Eliezer turned to Rabbi Yehoshua and said to him, “What’s going on with you Yehoshua? We are sitting here, and Rabban Gamliel the Prince is waiting on us?
Rabbi Yehoshua responded to Rabbi Eliezer, “We found someone even greater than Rabban Gamliel who waited on people. Avraham Avinu was the greatest Jew in his entire generation (and called a Prince by the people) and yet we see that he waited on his guests, hand and foot. Maybe you will counter by saying that Avraham knew that they were angels? That was clearly not the case. They presented to him like simple desert dwellers. So, if Avraham Avinu could wait on his guests, it’s okay for Rabban Gamliel to wait on us, which is why I accepted the cup from him.”
At this point Rabbi Tzadok piped up and said,
“You are forgetting the honor of Hashem and occupying yourselves with the honor of mortals. Hashem Himself makes the winds blow to gather the clouds that bring the rain that makes everything grow. Thus, He sets the table with food for every human being, and Rabban Gamliel can’t wait on us?”
Based on this story, the Talmud concludes that a prince may forego his honor if he wishes.
Psalms 89:3 says:
ספר תהילים פרק פט
(ג) כִּי אָמַרְתִּי עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה
Hashem has said: The world is built on lovingkindness.
Avraham Avinu stood in awe and admiration of Hashem for His great kindness. Hashem created this entire universe and everyone in it just to bestow His kindness upon them! We are all the beneficiaries of Hashem’s immense kindness, and Avraham Avinu keenly felt this. Avraham chose his calling by discerning what would be the greatest good that he could do for his fellow man. He decided to make them aware of Hashem’s kindness to them. Once they came to realize that Hashem was their true benefactor, their appreciation of His goodness to them would inspire them to express their gratitude to Him and create their own relationship with Him.
And how would Avraham accomplish that? By modeling Hashem’s great kindness to the world. Avraham’s hotel provided the best accommodations, and food to be found anywhere. When a guest would thank Avraham for his hospitality after staying in his five- star hotel, Avraham would invoke the great host, Hashem. He would explain to his guests that Hashem is really the ultimate host for all mankind, and that it is He who takes care of all our needs. Hence, he is really Hashem’s guests in this world, and owes his thanks to Hashem.
A question remains. Isn’t a person’s purpose in this world to attain spirituality? How could Avraham give up such a spiritually high moment for the mundane task of feeding guests?
A young man visiting Israel found himself in Aish Hatorah. After about six months of studying Torah in the Yeshiva, he notified the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noach Weinberg (of blessed memory) that he was leaving. This surprised the Rosh Yeshiva because it seemed like the boy was growing in his studies. When Rabbi Weinberg ask the young man the reason for his decision, he replied, “I am interested in attaining spirituality. There is no spirituality here, and I am embarking on a journey to different places in the world to find it!”
Rabbi Weinberg responded, “Would you please do me a favor? I am also very interested in spirituality. When you find it, would you please come back and tell me where you found it, so I could have it too?”
About six months later, the young man returned to the Yeshiva to report his findings to Rabbi Weinberg.
“Well, where did you find it?” asked the rabbi.
“Rabbi, I traveled all over the world, and I did not find spirituality anywhere!” responded the young man.
To this Rabbi Weinberg asked. “You didn’t succeed in finding spirituality, but did you at least see the bavufkas?”
“The what?” he asked.
“The bavufkas!” repeated Rabbi Weinberg.
“What are the bavufkas?” asked the young man.
“You didn’t see the bavufkas!? I can’t believe it! You traveled all over the world and you didn’t even see the bavufkas?” exclaimed an exasperated Rabbi Weinberg.
“Rabbi,” responded a somewhat agitated young man, “I told you, I don’t know what they look like! If there was a one standing right next to me, I wouldn’t know it, so how could I have seen one?!”
To which Rabbi Weinberg said, “And spirituality, you do know what it looks like?”
Many Jews travel to the far east to find spirituality. A life devoid of any physical pleasures, or material possessions seems to be a very holy and spiritual way of life.
Rodger Kamenetz, the author of The Jew in the Lotus, says, “A third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots.” Half of the participants in the Vipassana meditation retreat near Dharamsala, India, are Israelis. According to one estimate, three out of four Western visitors to the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism and the seat of the Dalai Lama are Jewish.
Buddhism teaches that to be alive in this world is to suffer. The goal of life is thus to escape the wheel of birth and death. Since suicide leads only to reincarnation, the only effective way to escape this world is by attaining nirvana, a transcendental state of consciousness that serves as an exit pass from the wheel of birth and death. To attain that transcendental state, one must totally negate his earthy self and meditate numerous times a day to free his mind to reach great spiritual heights.
But look what happened with Abraham: He was in the most spiritual state, conversing with the Almighty, yet he left it to take care of guests whom he didn’t even know. Why did he do that? Because Avraham understood that Hashem created us a people, with body and soul. And our goal in life is to be holy person! Not to become a spirit and leave the body behind. Our task rather is to commission the body to do Hashem’s will and through that, make even the body holy. By acting as the agent through which we have served Hashem by doing a mitzvah, our body becomes elevated and sanctified. The more mitzvot we do, the holier the body becomes. The holier the body becomes, the more mitzvot we can do, because the body, in its new state, presents less of a challenge to the soul.
The Torah way of life strikes the perfect balance between a person’s physical and spiritual components.
We live in a world with advocates for both extremes. There is a vast number of people who live only to experience pleasure. They occupy their days with trying to experience the greatest amount of gratification possible. When they get bored of one pleasure, they look for another. This keeps life interesting and exciting. But what happens when they get older and those pleasures become more and more elusive? What do they have left?
On the other hand, there are those who say that we should not partake of earthy pleasures, as they will prevent us from achieving our elevated spiritual goals. These people live celibate, deficient lives, and never experience the multitude of pleasures that Hashem has put in this world for us to enjoy. When they get older, they, too, realize that what could have been a rich, fulfilling life, was not.
The Torah says, I have put you here to live a most pleasurable life. Eat the most delicious foods (just make sure that they are kosher) and before you eat, recognize Hashem as your benefactor by making a blessing on the food, and then thank Him for His kindness by reciting the blessing afterwards. Because this morsel of food has brought you much closer to Hashem, the food becomes elevated and holy, and, by eating it, so do you.
Rabbi Yehudah Halevi in the Sefer HaKuzari says a remarkable thing: It is as big a mitzvah to eat delicious foods on Shabbat and Yom Tov as it is to fast on Yom Kippur!
Yet this is true of all the mitzvot. They employ the use of all our material resources, but because those resources have been commissioned to Hashem’s service, they become sanctified in the process. Thus, the entire human being becomes holy. This is what Hashem has created us to be, and Avraham Avinu understood this clearly. This is why he left Hashem’s presence to take care of the guests, and how we learn the lesson that welcoming guests is greater even than having a conversation with Hashem.
This is why the Torah is so rich with mitzvot, and why the performance of mitzvot is so important. Many people say, “I am a good Jew in my heart. I believe in Hashem and I love Him.” That feeling will have no effect on his body, and he will not become holy through it. It is only through engaging the entire person, body and soul, that one can reach the level of holiness that he was put here to achieve.