Shabbat shalom. In this week’s parshah Vayera, and he appeared, we pick up following Abraham’s circumcision. The basic question the title of this parshah implores us to ask is who appeared? Before we answer that question it is important to recognize that Parshah Vayera is packed with lessons and a multitude of stories. This is both a challenge and an opportunity, as it is difficult to give a concise dvar From my background as a chaplain, I’m inclined to speak about Abraham’s experience post-surgery and being visited by the angels – so here is our beginning.
Rashi shares with us that Abraham was sitting by the terebinths of Mamre in pain on the third day post circumcision and that it is God who appears to Abraham at Mamre in the form of three men, angels. Abraham looked up and saw these three angels and he ran towards them, despite his post-operative pain. Abraham did not want these angels to pass him without receiving water, foot baths, food, and rest. Abraham was known for his reputation of providing unparalleled hospitality. Unbeknownst to Abraham these three angels were sent for him so that they could perform the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. While many of our mitzvoth include prescribed blessings or rituals, there is no blessing that one recites prior to visiting someone who is ill. Rather, this is a commandment incumbent upon all of us. The importance of performing this mitzvah is the power it holds to strengthen our connection to one another. It also strengthens our mind-heart connection. It provides us with the expectation to be mindful of the needs of others, while providing a framework of support.
Even though Abraham was weak and experiencing the pain associated with his circumcision, he immediately recognized and grasped the opportunity to do this mitzvah of his own, hachnasat orchim, to be a gracious host. Abraham invited these three angels into his tent, waited on them, and prepared for them an amazing feast. One of the angels inquired about Abraham’s wife, Sarah. The angel said that he would return next year and that Sarah would be pregnant. Sarah overheard this and laughed because she was old and no longer menstruated. We learn later in Vayera that Sarah does indeed give birth to a son and she names him Yitzhak (Isaac), meaning laughter.
After sharing the news that Sarah would conceive, the angles begin to leave and make their way towards Sodom and Gomorrah. The inhabitants of these cities have sinned gravely and their wickedness has reached the heavens. Abraham learns that God intends to obliterate the cities. Abraham is concerned because his nephew Lot resides in the area and he knows Lot to be a reputable and righteous person. Abraham questions God and asks God if God would destroy the innocent with the guilty. Abraham understands that he is but “dust and ashes,” but nevertheless he is arguing with God for the sake of sparing the cities for benefit of the righteous that live among them. The negotiations begin…
Finally, God and Abraham agree that if even ten righteous men can be found within the cities then God will spare them.
How do we understand the evil that existed in Soddom and Gemorrah? The rabbis teach us that the inhabitants of these cities exhibited the opposite behavior of Abraham. Just as we know that Abraham’s tent was open on all sides to receive guests to provide them with food, water, rest, and spiritual words of Torah. So too, in the cities of Soddom and Gemorrah, all of the citizens came out to greet travelers, as is quoted in a midrash. The midrash relates that the inhabitants of Soddom and Gemorrah would give the traveler lots of money and even invite the traveler into their home for rest. However, once they gave money to traveler the cities would close all the stores, thereby making the money meaningless. The bed offered to the visitor was either intentionally too small or too large. If the bed were too large they would stretch the body of the visitor to fill it out, if the bed were too small the hosts would chop the traveler’s appendages until they ‘fit’. Our sages wanted to reinforce the importance of hachnasat orchim and explained this perversion of hachnasat orchim as the reason for the ultimate destruction of these cities.
Up to this point we’ve painted a picture of Abraham Avinu (Abraham our father) as proactive, preemptive and filled with a sense of righteous, morality, and ethics. As we see from his engaging God and questioning God’s intent to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah. Abraham addresses God and says, “You are the judge of your creation, us, should you our creator not deal justly with us? We applaud Abraham for standing up, but we see he is inconsistent. Just a few verses later, Abraham in Genesis 21:10, is instructed by his wife Sarah to “cast out the slave woman, and her son, for the son of the slave shall not share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” Abraham is silent here and carries out his wife’s demand. What does this say about our patriarch? There is yet another mitzvah referred to as shalom bayit, peace in the home. In regards to Abraham, how do we understand shalom bayit? Abraham ultimately respects the wishes of his wife, but in doing so casts aside his concubine/wife’s maidservant and his child to the harsh desert…the unknown. Perhaps Abraham knew that God would take care of them and that allowed him to comply with his wife’s orders.
Yet another area where we find Abraham in a questionable moral position is in Genesis 22:2, here Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son. Rashi spins this into a Q&A session, other sages remark that Isaac at this stage was a young man and try to justify the actions of Abraham that are morally reprehensible. As Isaac is bound upon the alter, an angel calls twice to his father, “Abraham, Abraham”. A Rebbe of mine once gave a teaching that Abraham’s name was repeated because he needed to be spoken to both intellectually and emotionally. In this week’s parshah and in life we understand the need to have a unification of heart and mind. Judaism must be both. How do we unite the mind and heart? With relationship building and education. Sometimes we must contend with conflicting mitzvoth, and when doing so we must consult our emotions and our intelligence. Judaism is not fulfilled by walking on one path and the rabbis teach us that there are 70 faces to the Torah, which is why even though we read the same words of Torah each year, our understanding evolves as we experience a new face of Torah.