Parashat Vayera: Divine revelation vs others’ needs‏

Abraham’s life was based on giving.

ABRAHAM WAITED at the entrance of the tent for an opportunity to do hessed. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
ABRAHAM WAITED at the entrance of the tent for an opportunity to do hessed.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s parasha, Vayera, begins with a double story: the Divine revelation that Abraham experienced and his hospitality.
The sages of the Midrash teach us that the reason Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent on that hot day was that he was looking for guests. Abraham’s life was based on giving. He felt an obligation to give to others. Therefore, he sat at the entrance of the tent and looked out to the horizon, hoping that maybe someone would pass by who might be happy to stop in Abraham’s tent for some refreshments and rest.
While sitting at the entrance of his tent, Abraham experienced a Divine revelation. The great commentator Rashi explained that God came to visit Abraham, who was recovering from his brit milah, the circumcision he had undergone at an advanced age. At that same moment when Abraham experienced spiritual transcendence, he noticed three people approaching the tent. It could be there was a moment of hesitation. Did Abraham ignore those people and continue to immerse himself in the spiritual revelation, or did he stop and approach the guests?
Whether or not there was any hesitation, Abraham’s decision was unequivocal: “...and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, ‘My lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass away from your servant’” (Genesis 18:2-3).
Who was Abraham speaking to? The Hebrew is in the singular, so some of the commentators understood that Abraham was speaking to one of the three approaching people. But if so, why would Abraham speak to only one of them?
Indeed, Rashi suggested an additional explanation, that Abraham was speaking to God, “and he was telling the Holy One, blessed be He, to wait for him until he would run and bring in the wayfarers.” Abraham gave up on the spiritual transcendence in order to welcome the guests, feed them, and bring them something to drink.
The Talmud learns the following principle from this: “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shechinah” (Shabbat 127).
To understand how profound a decision it was to give up the Divine revelation for the sake of strangers, we have to try to examine Abraham’s understanding of “hessed” – acts of loving-kindness.
We saw that Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent on a hot day to search for guests. This is slightly odd. We are used to understanding the purpose of “hessed” as fulfilling the needs of others. We see someone who is lacking something, and as a result we do “hessed” and give him what he was lacking. But we are not accustomed to thinking of “hessed” as an essential need of the giver, as seems to be reflected in the story about Abraham.
One of the greatest hassidic leaders from the beginning of the 20th century, the “admor” Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein of Sochatchov, Poland, wrote about this in his book Shem Mishmuel. He explains that when person is exposed to another’s despair and does hessed, even if it is obviously a positive act, there is something egotistical about it. It is hard to witness despair and suffering. Our desire to solve someone else’s problems stems also from our own difficulties in seeing someone else suffer. But there is another form of hessed that is altruistic, when someone wants only what is best for another.
That’s who Abraham was. He did not do acts of loving-kindness only when he saw someone who needed them. He waited at the entrance of the tent for an opportunity to do hessed. Therefore, he even gave up a Divine revelation. Experiencing a revelation includes an aspect of spiritual delight, yet Abraham postponed this spiritual delight until he finished seeing to the needs of his guests.
How suitable are the words of Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), the founder of the Musar movement in Lithuanian yeshivot, who said, “The material needs of others are my spiritual needs.” When a person internalizes this, he is capable of giving up even a Divine revelation in order to see to the material needs of another. 
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.