This week’s portion, Vayeira, is the fourth portion in the Torah and at this point it has been over 2000 years since Hashem created the world. Regarding the 2000 years that have passed, the Torah has shared with us only a few stories, and in each one, Hashem has had to take matters into His own hands and intervene.
About 1600 years after creation, we are told that humanity had reached the lowest point possible, and that Hashem had decided that this is not what He intended when He created the world. It was time to do a reset. Hashem found Noach, a righteous man and his family, and restarted the world with them. Hashem brought a great flood and destroyed everything on the planet save the few selected for protection in the ark that Noach built.
Almost 350 years later the Torah tells us that all of humanity, except for Avraham Avinu, joined together to build a tower that would reach the heavens, so that they could rebel against Hashem. Hashem did not find their efforts very pleasing, so he changed their languages so that they could not communicate, and dispersed them over the face of the earth.
Only about 50 years later, Hashem, once again, found a certain group of people so reprehensible that He had to personally destroy them – the cites of Sedom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:24,25).
(כד) וַיהֹוָה הִמְטִיר עַל סְדֹם וְעַל עֲמֹרָה גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ מֵאֵת יְהֹוָה מִן הַשָּׁמָיִם:
(כה) וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת הֶעָרִים הָאֵל וְאֵת כָּל הַכִּכָּר וְאֵת כָּל ישְׁבֵי הֶעָרִים וְצֶמַח הָאֲדָמָה:
24) Hashem made sulphur and fire rain down on Sedom and Gomorrah – it came from Hashem, out of the sky. 25) He overturned these cities along with the entire plain, destroying everyone who lived in the cities and all that was growing from the ground.
As these are the stories that Hashem has chosen to share with us about humanity before we get to the Forefathers who established Hashem in the world, it is obvious that there is an important lesson that Hashem wants to teach us. What is this lesson? Is there a common thread that we can weave through these events to learn what Hashem wants from the humanity that He created?
Let us begin with the flood. What was the crime of the people who inhabited the world at that time that made Hashem decide to destroy them? What were they doing that was so bad, that they forfeited their right to exist on the planet? Was it murder?
Hashem revealed the secret to Noach (Genesis 6:13).
(יג) וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְנֹחַ קֵץ כָּל בָּשָׂר בָּא לְפָנַי כִּי מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ חָמָס מִפְּנֵיהֶם וְהִנְנִי מַשְׁחִיתָם אֶת הָאָרֶץ
13) Hashem said to Noach, “The end of all flesh has come before Me, for the world is filled with theft, I will therefore destroy them with the earth.”
Rashi quoting the Talmud comments on this verse:
כי מלאה הארץ חמס – לא נחתם גזר דינם אלא על הגזל (סנהדרין קח)
Their fate was sealed because of theft.
Theft? What’s so bad about theft? For that the entire world was destroyed? It’s not murder!
There is a glaring question asked by the Sages.
How is it that Noach’s generation was destroyed, when all they did was steal from one another, but did not rebel against Hashem, and the generation of the Tower, who deliberately attempted to rebel against Hashem, survived and received just a slap on the wrist, so to speak, of being dispersed? Where is the logic?
The Sages answer that this is exactly the point the Torah wants to teach us. The world exists on kindness to one another. This is the foundation of the world because it was just for this reason that Hashem created the world.
King David says in Psalms (99:3):
(ג) כִּי אָמַרְתִּי עוֹלָם חֶסֶד יִבָּנֶה
Hashem has said: The world is built on lovingkindness.
Hashem created the world to bestow love and kindness upon the human being. Hashem who is only good and nothing else, can only do good. It is impossible for evil to come from Him. This is what the Talmud expresses when it says:
כל מאן דעביד רחמנא לטב עביד
Everything that Hashem does is for the good. Everything, bar – none. Even though this statement may be difficult to grasp, it is the absolute truth. There is no option for Hashem to do evil because Hashem is good and evil cannot emanate from a source that is good. The deficiency lies with us and our perception of what is transpiring. We do not see the whole picture.
Imagine you were in a hospital and walked by an operating room. You take a peek through the small glass window in the door and you see people dressed in gowns sawing someone’s leg off from the ankle down. You are aghast! What is going on there?
Through the small window you can see only a limited view. Little do you know that this person stepped on a rusty nail and has gangrene in his foot. If they do not amputate, the poison will travel throughout his body and ultimately kill him. As crazy as it may seem, they are saving his life.
It may be bitter, but it is not bad. Bear in mind. Not everything bitter is bad for you, and not everything sweet is good for you. A bitter medicine will heal you even though it is hard to get down.
We also can never see the whole picture. Hashem is keeping track for decades and centuries, and running the world in the way that is best for mankind. We, who only see a small snippet of the picture, cannot see how everything that Hashem does is for the best.
This concept applies to each individual person, and to the world as a whole. Hashem has it all worked out so that each event that transpires is the perfect prescription for each recipient.
The Midrash teaches us (Tanchuma Vayera 1).
א”ר שמלאי תדע שכל דרכיו חסד שהרי בתחלת התורה קשט את הכלה דכתיב ויבן ה’ אלהים את הצלע וגו’ (בראשית ב) שכן בכרכי הים קורין לכלה בונה ובסופה קבר את המת ויקבר אותו בגי (דברים לד) ובאמצעיתה בקר את החולה כיון שמל אברהם בא הוא ופמליא שלו ובקרו ממה שקראו בענין וירא אליו ה
Rabbi Simlai said: I will prove to you that all of Hashem’s ways are kindness. In the beginning of the Torah Hashem beautified Chava and brought her to Adam … in the end of the Torah he buried Moshe… and in the middle He visited the sick, Avraham.
Hashem made the world to bestow loving kindness upon His creations. We are obligated to follow His ways, and practice loving kindness to other human beings on the planet. When we do so, we are contributing to the basis for the world’s existence and merit our own existence. When we fail to act kindly to others, we forfeit our right to exist, and Hashem may take it away from us.
The mindset of one who steals is, “What can I take for myself from another person.” He is in this world only for himself, to see what he can get for himself from others. He has no respect for them or their ownership of their property. Hence, he is undermining the foundation for creation. He is not here to help others; he is here to help himself at the expense of the others. The generation of the flood were all involved in theft. This is why they could not continue to exist. They were the antithesis of the purpose for creation, and had destroyed the very foundation of the world.
On the other hand, although the people of the Tower of Babel attempted to rebel against Hashem, they were united in their effort. They were at peace with one another helping one another accomplish their shared mission. Thus, they had merit to continue to exist. They were fulfilling Hashem’s purpose for the world, to bestow kindness upon one another. Even though this kindness was misguided and aimed at rebelling against Hashem, Hashem looked past His personal Honor and saw their friendship. This is why they survived with only a slap on the wrist.
This is how Rashi says it.
רש”י על בראשית פרק יא פסוק ט
(ט) ומשם הפיצם – למד שאין להם חלק לעוה”ב וכי איזו קשה של דור המבול או של דור הפלגה אלו לא פשטו יד בעיקר ואלו פשטו יד בעיקר להלחם בו ואלו נשטפו ואלו לא נאבדו מן העולם אלא שדור המבול היו גזלנים והיתה מריבה ביניהם לכך נאבדו ואלו היו נוהגים אהבה וריעות ביניהם שנאמר שפה אחת ודברים אחדים. למדת ששנאוי המחלוקת וגדול השלום
The people of the Tower of Babel have no place in the World to Come for what they did. But what is worse? The generation of the flood who didn’t rebel against Hashem or these who rebelled against Hashem? Yet they were both judged but these were not banished from the world! The reason is that the people of the flood were thieves and there was quarreling between them, therefore they were banished. But these, acted with love and friendship to each other. We learn how despised discord is and how great peace is in the eyes of Hashem.
What a profound lesson. Hashem will overlook our transgressions to Him if we are kind to our fellow human beings.
When it comes to the cities of Sedom and Gomorrah, the story is the same.
The people of Sedom, were evil and sadistic. Their philosophy forbade acts of kindness. For example, in Sedom, one was not permitted to feed the hungry or host guests in their homes. If a needy person came to town, no one was allowed to give him any food, or invite him into their homes to lodge. The local hotel was no better. They would provide a long bed for a short person and stretch him until he fit and would provide a short bed for a long person and cut his feet off. The screams of agony and suffering from the victims who were tortured by Sedom’s inhabitants, reached Hashem’s ears, and the cry was so great that Hashem decided He needed to kill the entire city. Another example of their ingenious cruelty, and the straw that broke the camel’s back, the Midrash relates, is the story of a poor man who came to town and remained a little too long. The townsfolk understood that someone must be secretly feeding him, so they staked out a spy to catch the culprit, who turned out to be a young girl. To make an example of her, they smeared her body with honey and put her on the top of a wall near bee hives, where the bees stung her to death.
These people forfeited their right to exist, and therefore, Hashem destroyed them.
By telling us these stories in the beginning of the creation, the message Hashem wants to teach us is crystal clear.
“The most important thing to Me is that you learn from My attribute of kindness and practice it on your fellow human beings. This is the basis for the world – kindness.”
In contrast to this, Hashem finds Avraham Avinu worthy of all blessings, because of his kindness to mankind. Avraham reached the pinnacle of what a human being could reach in his efforts to model Hashem’s kindness. We find a shining example of this in this week’s portion.
(א) וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְדֹוָד בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא וְהוּא ישֵׁב פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם:
- Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day:
The portion of Vayeira (Genesis 18:1) begins with this verse describing Hashem’s visit to Avraham. What prompted this visit, and why is the Torah mentioning the weather (a blistering hot day)?
Rashi’s comment on this verse provides us with background information.
Rabbi Chama Bar Chaninah explained: This was the third day after Avraham had circumcised himself, and Avraham was in great pain. Hashem came to pay Avraham a visit as he was sick, and Hashem modeled the mitzvah of ביקור חולים – visiting the sick.
Avraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent to see if there were any travelers needing food or lodging. Avraham’s tent was really a five-star hotel for any traveler in need, and Avraham sought to bestow kindness on as many people as he possibly could. He sought out the needy traveler, which is what he was doing on that scorching hot day.
It was so hot because Hashem didn’t want anyone to impose on the ailing Avraham. Hashem therefore made it so hot that no one would attempt to travel on that day.
(ב) וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה שְׁלשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים נִצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיַּרְא וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ אָרְצָה:
2. He lifted his eyes and saw – And behold! three men were standing over him. He perceived, so he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed toward the ground:
What happened here? Didn’t we just say that Hashem wanted him to be left alone?
Rashi explains that when Hashem saw that the pain of not having guests was greater to Avraham than the pain of his wound, He sent three angels – it was too hot for ordinary people – disguised as regular people to become Avraham’s guests.
When Avraham saw them, he ran to them to invite them to partake of his hospitality. Hashem was then visiting with Avraham, yet Avraham left Hashem’s presence to welcome the guests! (Though he pardoned himself first.) This is what we read in the next verse.
(ג) וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ:
3. And he said, “My Lord, if I find favor in Your eyes, please do not leave Your servant.”
Avraham requested that the Almighty wait for him so he could take care of the guests. Can you imagine?! Here, Avraham Avinu is having the spiritual encounter of a lifetime – speaking with Hashem Himself – and he interrupts it to serve guests?
The sages learn a profound lesson from this (Shabbat 127a).
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב גדולה הכנסת אורחין מהקבלת פני שכינה
Rabbi Yehudah quoted Rav who said: Welcoming guests is greater even than having a conversation with Hashem.
We have learned this lesson from Avraham, but, who taught him this lesson? How did Avraham know that this is what Hashem would have wanted him to do? Perhaps, leaving Hashem’s presence to serve mere mortals would constitute 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 Torah sage may voluntarily forego his personal honor. Perhaps, because he represents the Torah, it is inappropriate for him to act like an ordinary person. To shed light on this question the Talmud relates the following incident (Kiddushin 32b) .
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 the wedding of Rabban Gamliel’s son. Rabban Gamliel, who was the leading sage of the time, was circulating and pouring l’chaims for his guests. Rabban Gamliel offered a drink to Rabbi Eliezer, who 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, such a great rabbi, 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 yet we see that he waited on his guests hand and foot. Maybe you wish to 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 could wait on simple desert dwellers, 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?”
Hashem is the ultimate benefactor. In His great kindness, he provides food for every creature on the planet.
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 do for them what Hashem did for him. He would make them aware of Hashem’s goodness to them so that they could also feel the special sweetness of having a relationship with such a wonderful and kind God.
How would he accomplish that? By modeling Hashem’s great kindness to the world. He built a five star hotel and provided the very best of everything to each of his guests. Avraham did not charge for the stay and when a guest would thank Avraham for his great hospitality, Avraham would tell him about the greatest host of all, Hashem. He would explain to them that Hashem is really the ultimate host for all mankind, and that we are all Hashem’s guests in this world. It is He who takes care of all our needs, and therefore they owe the thanks to Him.
This is how Avraham brought people closer to Hashem. By giving them to realize that Hashem is the source of all blessing in the world, and that we all live on His goodness. This obligates us to feel feelings of gratitude and love for Hashem for all the good that he does for us. It also obligates us to follow His example and to be a source of goodness for others to benefit from.
One question remains. Isn’t a person’s purpose in this world to attain spirituality? Here Avraham was engaged in the ultimate spiritual experience; Hashem had come to visit him and he was communicating directly with Hashem. How could Avraham leave such a spiritually high moment for the mundane task of feeding guests?
Avraham understood that Hashem created us as people, with body and soul. Our goal in life is to be holy people by modeling our behavior after Hashem’s and to perform acts of kindness to our fellow human beings. We were not created to focus on ourselves and to become a spirit and leave the body behind. Rather, our task is to commission the body to do Hashem’s will, and to use our talents and resources to help others.
At this time, when our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael need so much merit, by doing extra acts of kindness to others, we bring peace and blessing into the world. This will help them immensely.