“Greater than Welcoming the Divine Presence”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, record that the Al-mighty appeared to Abraham in the Plains of Mamre, and that Abraham welcomed three guests who passed by his home.

From the biblical narrative, the rabbis conclude that the Al-mighty Himself fulfilled the special mitzvah of Bikur Cholim , visiting the sick (see Vayeira 5764-2003), and that Abraham fulfilled the special mitzvah of Hachnassat Orchim, welcoming guests and providing hospitality (see Vayeira 5760-1999 and Vayeira 5770-2009).

Rashi, citing the well-known Midrash, describes that G-d had come to visit Abraham on the third day after his circumcision, to inquire about his welfare.

Rashi elaborates on Abraham’s encounter with the Divine, by citing a Midrash on Genesis 18:1, “V’hoo yo’shayv peh’tahch ha’oh’hel k’chom ha’yom,” which emphasizes that Abraham was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. The Midrash maintains that the Holy One, blessed be He, brought the sun out of its sheath to make it shine intensely, so as not to trouble Abraham with guests. However, when G-d saw that Abraham was aggrieved by the absence of visitors, He brought the angels to Abraham in the form of men.

From this episode, our rabbis boldly declare (Shabbat 127a): “G’doh’lah hach’nah’saht or’cheem, may’hak’bah’laht p’nay Sh’chee’nah,” welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence!

Why would welcoming guests be regarded as greater than welcoming the Divine Presence? M’orah Shel Torah (compiled by Shimon Halprin, 1947) offers the following parable: A king sent his sons out of the city to be educated. When the king came to visit his children, the royal tutor welcomed the king with great deference. While talking with the king, the two hungry young princes suddenly arrived. The tutor excused himself politely, asking the king to wait until he fed the princes. The king rejoiced over the tutor’s commitment to his children. Had the boys gone unfed, the king would have been angry. The lesson is clear, G-d is the king, Abraham’s guests are His children.

How do the rabbis learn from the encounter of G-d and Abraham that welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence? Perhaps both mitzvot are of equal importance? Perhaps, after welcoming the Divine Presence, Abraham ran to perform the mitzvah of welcoming guests, which was no more or less significant than welcoming the Divine Presence.

The Vilna Gaon brings support for the Talmudic dictum from a Talmudic discussion in Yoma 53a. The Talmud notes that when the Priests, Levites and Israelites concluded the sacred service in the Temple, they would never turn their backs and simply depart. Rather, they would turn their faces toward the sanctuary and walk out backward. It is similarly noted that a student should never turn his back on a teacher, but rather politely excuse himself, walking backward.

Drawing upon this practice of displaying respect, the Vilna Gaon argues that when Abraham completed welcoming the Divine Presence, he should have walked backward out of respect to the Al-mighty. The verse, however, indicates that Abraham did not do so. In Genesis 18:2, the Torah notes, “Va’yah’rahtz lik’rah’tahm mee’peh’tach hah’oh’hel, vah’yish’tah’choo ar’tzah,” he [Abraham] ran toward them [the guests] from the entrance of the tent, and bowed toward the ground. Obviously, Abraham turned his back on the Divine Presence, proving that welcoming guests is indeed greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.

The author of Kehilath Yitzchak offers an alternate explanation based on the seemingly extraneous words found in Genesis 18:2, “Va’yah’rahtz lik’rah’tahm mee’peh’tach hah’oh’hel,” indicating that Abraham ran toward the guests from the entrance of the tent. After all, the opening verse had already indicated that Abraham was sitting in the tent’s entrance.

Jewish law posits that in order to avoid being disrespectful, a person must not run from one mitzvah that he has completed in order to perform another mitzvah, since that would appear to be belittling the first mitzvah.

The author of Kehilath Yitzchak explains that the law of not belittling a mitzvah to perform a second mitzvah applies only if both mitzvot are of equal value, but if the second mitzvah is of greater value, then one is permitted to run.

The fact that Abraham ran from the door of the tent implies that the mitzvah of welcoming guests was greater than the first mitzvah of welcoming the Divine Presence.

The rabbinic practice of deriving moral, ethical and social lessons from the actions of the matriarchs and patriarchs becomes all the more profound when it is done at the apparent expense of G-d Al-mighty’s honor.

May you be blessed.