Parashat Vayera: Divine revelation and welcoming guests

Man’s creation is ‘hachnasat orhim’ in the deepest sense we can imagine.

WELCOMING GUESTS is not only a noble act of loving-kindness, but is also a reflection of God’s own deeds. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
WELCOMING GUESTS is not only a noble act of loving-kindness, but is also a reflection of God’s own deeds.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)
This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, begins with a description of a divine revelation experienced by Abraham: “Now the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1). Whoever expects to read about the revelation will be disappointed, since in the following verse, the story moves to the description of a different event: “And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him” (18:2). Abraham sees three passersby – who only later will turn out to be three angels/emissaries sent to inform Abraham and Sarah about the birth of their son, Isaac. But now Abraham is not aware of this and he sees people, passersby, and feels responsible for their welfare and for feeding them. He faces a dilemma. Should he focus on the experience of the revelation and ignore the guests, or should he abandon the lofty personal experience and instead deal with the act of hessed, of loving-kindness, entailed in hachnasat orhim, being hospitable?
What does Abraham choose to do?
“… and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself on the ground. And he said, ‘My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts’” (18:2-5).
The Talmud concluded this surprising principle from the story: “Taking care of guests is more important than welcoming God” (Tractate Shabbat, page 127). Abraham’s preference teaches us that there is a value even more important than divine revelation, which is welcoming guests. Bringing someone into your home and hosting him is an act greater than the most earth-shattering religious experience a person can have.
What does that mean? Why would welcoming guests be of greater importance than a direct encounter with God? Or, perhaps it should be asked this way: What is it about welcoming guests that Abraham deemed so valuable as to be willing to give up a divine revelation on its behalf?
An examination of the concept of hachnasat orhim reveals that it differs from other acts of loving-kindness. When a person gives charity or helps another person, he is doing an act of loving-kindness that is certainly praiseworthy. But when a person welcomes someone into his home and hosts him, he is surrendering his privacy, his personal space, for the needs of someone else. A person who brings a guest into his home thus gives up some of his sense of ownership and control.
Abraham’s faith was not limited to the theological concept of monotheism. Abraham added moral content to monotheism, and saw justice as God’s way – the way that God manages the world. If we examine this outlook, the first act of loving-kindness that God did in the world was to bequeath existence to all of creation. God – seemingly – shares His space with us and welcomes us into His home. If this is true of all creation, so the creation of man as an independent creature capable of choice entails God seemingly surrendering control of the world. Man, as odd as it seems, is capable of doing things that are contrary to God’s wishes. Man is capable of stealing, of murdering, of being unfaithful, of being harmful – all contrary to God’s desire and directives. Actually, God surrendered some of His control of the world and gave man choice – even if limited – to determine how his life should look. Man’s creation is hachnasat orhim in the deepest sense we can imagine.
Therefore, welcoming guests is not only a noble act of loving-kindness, but is also a reflection of God’s own deeds. Abraham understood clearly that the divine revelation was not the peak, since the purpose of the revelation was to teach man how to have godly values reflected in his life. The welcoming of these guests who were wandering in the desert heat into his home is what makes Abraham worthy of the encounter with God.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.