Kindness and Truth

  • Rav Alex Israel

 

INTRODUCTION TO PARASHAT HASHAVUA

 

PARASHAT VAYERA

 

Kindness and Truth

by Rabbi Alex Israel

 

 

            Our parasha opens with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent.  We are told that God "appeared" to Abraham.  Almost immediately, a small group of wayfarers enter the scene and we witness an account of Avraham's overwhelming hospitality to them.  This seemingly straightforward Bible story is not without its problems.  Let us examine this famous episode and we will see whether we can dig a little under the surface.

 

SURPRISE GUESTS

 

"The LORD appeared to him (Abraham) at the Oaks of Mamreh; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.  Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.  As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, 'My lords, if it please you, do not leave your servant.  Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree and let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves'..." (Bereishit 18 1:4).

 

            The narrative tells us that Abraham mobilizes his entire household, baking bread, slaughtering a calf, to provide fresh food for his chance guests.  Abraham serves this sumptuous meal himself.

 

The men have a message for Abraham:

 

"One said, 'I will return to you next year and your wife Sarah shall have a son!'  Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent behind him.  Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years; Sarah had stopped having the periods of women.  And Sarah laughed to herself, saying, 'Now that I am withered, am I to be rejuvenated - with my husband old?'  Then the Lord said to Abraham, 'Why did Sarah laugh....  Is anything too wondrous for the Lord?  I shall return next year, and Sarah shall have a son'" (18:9-14).

 

            The men leave, apparently bound for Sodom.  The next chapter tells of two angels arriving in Sodom to destroy the city for its evil culture, but in advance of this, we see that:

 

"The men set out from there and looked down to Sodom, Abraham walking with them to see them off.  Now the Lord said, 'Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?'" (18:16-17).

 

            God then proceeds to inform Abraham of the impending destruction of Sodom.

 

QUESTIONS

 

            When reading the first line of this famous passage, two basic questions confront the reader.  The first concerns Abraham's behavior, the second is a question about God.

 

            Firstly - Abraham.  It seems as if God appears to Abraham and in the middle of it all he gets up to run after some travelers!  Is this appropriate conduct vis a vis the Almighty?  And secondly - what was God's vision to Abraham?  What was he going to say to him before he was rudely cut off by Abraham's enthusiasm for welcoming guests?

 

            We may add one further question.  Who exactly are these men?  How do they know that Sarah will have a child?  According to rabbinic tradition, and this is strongly hinted in the text itself, we might assume that two of these 'men' proceed down to Sodom.  In that case, these men are not human but rather angels.  That would explain their message to Sarah.  But we may also ask: to where did the third one go?  And why are they not called angels in the text?

 

THE RAMBAM - VISIONS AND ANGELS

 

            Maimonides (known as the Rambam; b. Spain 1135 - d. Egypt 1204 - one of the primary figures of medieval halakhic and philosophical literature) is troubled by these questions.  But furthermore, the Rambam is concerned by the nature, rather than the specific identity, of these men.  He has a philosophical difficulty.  If these 'men' are indeed angels, how can Abraham see them?  Since angels are purely spiritual beings and our eyes see only the physical reality before us, how can a human see an angel?  (Moreh Nevukhim - The Guide to the Perplexed 2:42)

 

            The truth is that the Rambam has this problem throughout TaNaKh (the Bible - abbreviation for Torah - Neviim - Ketuvim) whenever a human 'meets' an angel.  Maimonides feels that this is a metaphysical impossibility.  Flesh cannot see spirit.  Or maybe let us rephrase that.  The only way that a human being can perceive of an angel - a solely spiritual being - is through the medium of a vision.  Every meeting between angel and human in Tanakh takes place - says the Rambam - in a prophetic vision.

 

            The Rambam's approach as regards the angels solves many of the problems that we raised earlier.  He reads the entire story as happening in a vision.  Thus, the opening verse is an introduction to the entire parasha and not part of the narrative itself.  "The LORD appeared to him (Abraham) at the Oaks of Mamreh" simply serves as the opener and now the vision begins.  The curtain rises and we see Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent.  In this reading, Abraham does not walk out on God at all - the story simply begins from "he was sitting at the entrance of the tent."  It is one story.  And as for the content of God's vision, we have solved that problem too ... the message of God IS the story itself.

 

WAS IT ALL A DREAM?

 

            Despite this neat solution, the questions on the Rambam's view are numerous.  If it was all a vision, then what is the message that this vision is attempting to communicate?  Furthermore, how far do we stretch this vision?  According to the Rambam, we will be forced to admit that Abraham never argued with God about Sodom!  In fact we may well ask: was Sodom really destroyed or was the entire Sodom episode also a vision?  If it is a vision, then Sodom should still be standing after Abraham comes back into full consciousness.  If that is not the case, where exactly does the vision end?

 

RASHBAM - ALL IN THE LOWER WORLDS

 

            The Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir - grandson of Rashi and master of the rational-grammatical reading of the biblical text) agrees with the Rambam in seeing the first verse as an opening line which sets the scene.  However, rather than go in the direction of the Rambam's prophetic vision, he prefers to see the entire episode as happening here on earth, in the flesh.  He reads the first verse as:

 

"'The LORD appeared to him (Abraham) at the Oaks of Mamreh' - How?  In what way did the Lord appear? - 'He saw three men standing near him.'"

 

            The three men are the medium through which God appears to Abraham.  They are angels but apparently they can be seen with the naked eye (and the Rashbam does not relate directly to the question of HOW one can see an angel).  Angels while appearing as 'men,' are also the messengers of God and His representatives.  In that capacity they can be referred to as "the Lord."

 

            In the eyes of the Rashbam, the parasha never loses track of these angels; they remain in the spotlight.  Even when we see the phrase "the Lord said to Abraham," it is not God but rather the chief angel - representative of the Almighty Himself.  Even when Abraham argues and pleads with God to save the city of Sodom from imminent annihilation (18:23-32), the conversation is not between God and Abraham but rather between the third angel and Abraham.  The other two angels are making their way to the city at that very moment.

 

            According to the Rashbam, then, this is a story of Abraham and the angels.  It is rooted firmly on earth and God does not enter the picture directly.  The Rashbam urges us not to be confused by interchanges in terminology between the terms "men," "angels" and "the Lord."  In reality, they are all metaphors for the same group of God's messengers - the angels.

 

PROBLEMS WITH THE RASHBAM

 

            Clearly, the Rashbam has his weak points too.  The first is exactly the point we have just mentioned.  Different names - man, angels, the Lord - DO mean different things.  Why should we equate them?  Additionally, we may ask, if God wishes to give Abraham a message, can he not talk to him directly as we see in countless other stories?

 

            We may also ask, what message exactly was God sending?  Was it about Isaac?  But Abraham has already been informed of the birth of Isaac.  In the previous chapter - when Abraham is commanded to circumcise himself and all his household as a covenant between him and God - he is given the following promise:

 

"Sarah your wife shall give birth to a son and you shall name him Yitzchak and I will maintain My covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come" (17:19).

 

            So what is it about?  Sodom?  Then why give Abraham the news about Yitzchak?  Is this a visit for Sarah too?  But the Torah states that God appeared "to him."  The final question for the Rashbam is why we need to read all the many details of Abraham's hospitality?  The heading of the parasha indicates that we are to receive a message from God.  Why, then, do we need to see all the detail of Abraham's devoted attention to his guests?  It does not fit in with the title of the whole story.

 

RASHI - CALL WAITING

 

            We have seen how the Rambam perceives the entire parasha as happening in a vision, and in contrast, how the Rashbam sees these events occurring solely here in earth.  Both of these scholars do not want to see the narrative switch back and forth from God to man.  Both commentators do not wish to read the text as saying that Abraham lets God wait while he entertains some hungry nomads.

 

            Rashi seems to be unworried by such concerns.  His approach shows a far more complex reading of our story.  In the eyes of Rashi, the parasha moves up and down; from heaven to earth and back to heaven, again and again.

 

Let us review some of Rashi's comments:

 

"THE LORD APPEARED TO HIM: God came to visit the sick.  It was the third day after Abraham's circumcision (when the wound is at its most painful) so God came to ask about his welfare....

THREE MEN: One to give Sarah the news (of her child), and one to destroy Sodom and one to heal Abraham (from his berit mila) for each angel can only perform but a single mission....

(3) And he said 'My lord(s), if it please you, do not leave your servant" ... it can be read as referring to God.  Abraham asked God to wait for him until he managed to rush and welcome the guests."

 

            Rashi has no problem with this parasha having three separate players - Abraham, God and the angels.  The focus of the parasha oscillates between heaven and earth.  Sarah laughs in disbelief at a comment from the angels and God reprimands her.  The angels leave and God resumes his conversation with Abraham.  There is a three way conversation going on in this parasha.

 

            Rashi seems unperturbed by the theological problems of interrupting God to attend to the angels (although see Rashi 18:22 on the "Tikkun Soferim" - based on the midrash).  In Rashi's reading, God too is unbothered by Abraham leaving him on "call waiting."  He simply continues where he left off, giving Abraham the weighty tidings of his plans of devastation and destruction for Sodom and Gomorra.

 

            Maybe Rashi is unbothered by Abraham leaving God hanging because he sees another focus to the parasha.  It seems to me that Rashi sees this parasha as a multi-layered mosaic.  It contains story within story within story and its central theme is that of Chesed - kindness and compassion.

 

THE POWER OF KINDNESS (CHESED)

 

            Rashi reads this opening parasha as a paradigm of hospitality, kindness to strangers, care for the disadvantaged and weak.  Abraham; recovering from an operation; runs to draw guests into his home.  The words "run," "quick" are repeated over and over as Abraham hurries to attend to these strangers every need.  He personally supervises the kitchens, he acts as a waiter serving their food.  He also accompanies them on their way, not letting them leave without an escort.

 

The Halakha takes account of this behavior:

 

"The reward of escorting a visitor from one's home is the greatest of all rewards for hospitality.  This is a law set in place by our father Abraham and the charitable ways which he forged as his lifestyle.  He would give wayfarers food and drink and would escort them on their way" (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Evel 14:2).

 

            These values are seen to override even the concerns of God Himself.  The Halakha continues (based on the gemara Shabbat 127a):

 

"Hospitality is of greater worth than receiving the Divine Presence itself.  This we learn from Genesis 18:2: 'And he looked up and saw three men (and ran towards them)'" (ibid.).

 

            Rashi's reading is approved of in Jewish law!  The value of hospitality overrides the Holy presence of God.  God prefers that we attend to needy strangers than attend to Him.  He will wait!

 

GOD'S MESSAGE

 

            So we have established the moral message of the first story.  But one question remains looming in the background.  What did God want to tell Abraham?  Why did God especially appear to Abraham that day?  What did He want to tell him?  Reading through our parasha, we have a possible answer.  The moment the three visitors leave, God says to Abraham:

 

"Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do ... for I have singled him out that he may instruct his children ... to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right ... And the Lord said 'The outrage of Sodom and Gemorra is great, and their sin so grave'" (18:16-20).

 

            God was about to tell Abraham how he was planning to destroy Sodom.  But we are puzzled.  Why does God feel a need to tell Abraham at all?  The text gives us an explanation, namely that He knows that Abraham is a man of ethical standards.  Abraham teaches his children to do the "way of the Lord" which means acting in a manner which is "just and right."  From the outside this act of destruction looks very much the opposite of "just and right."  God wants to explain his actions.  God wants Abraham to understand why God deems it "just and right" to destroy an entire city.

 

            Abraham's reaction is laden with passion and outrage:

 

"... Abraham came forward and said 'Will you sweep away innocent along with the guilty?  What if there are fifty innocent people within the city; will you then wipe out the place and not forgive it ...?  Far be it from you to do such a thing, to bring death upon innocent as well as the guilty... Shall the Judge of all the earth not deal justly?'" (18:23-25).

 

Abraham upholds the banner of kindness and compassion.  He accuses "the Judge of all earth" with malpractice!  Abraham does not see this act as consistent with all that he knows about God.  The ensuing discussion, however, proves to Abraham that God is in fact correct in his verdict.  Sodom is evil through and through.  There is not even a handful of the righteous in Sodom.

 

A TRANS-PARASHA THEME

 

            In the Torah these two stories form one long flowing narrative.  There is not even a paragraph break in the text.  It is all one.  One may suggest that this indicates a common theme which runs through both stories.

 

            The Torah here is presenting a single story about Chesed.  This is a story which tells us volumes about the depth of Abraham's moral sensitivity and passion.  Abraham's hospitality and his discussion with God about Sodom are just different facets of the same story.  This story is about human compassion and sensitivity to hardship and suffering.  We first see Abraham as a model host, welcoming any anonymous passer-by.  But when we see that God has to tell Abraham about Sodom's destruction, we realize that we are simply witnessing the logical implication of the previous episode.  Why does God feel a need to 'clear' things with Abraham?  Because Abraham is the man on earth who epitomizes kindness to all.  Independent of who you are, you are invited into his home unquestioningly, you are escorted back into the desert.  This story revolves around the theme of Chesed and in a certain sense, the Rambam is correct.  It is all a singular vision.

 

            The Chesed theme continues like a thread through our parasha.  It seems that every story describes a further angle on this central pillar of Abraham's moral character: Be it Sodom, who practice the grossest lack of hospitality.  Be it the sending away of Yishmael where we share Abraham's dilemma as whether to follow God's order and send his eldest son away from home.  And then there is the Akeida, the unfathomable of all the trials of Abraham, where Abraham is asked to obey God in sacrificing his very own son - Yitzchak.  The trials of Abraham test Abraham's unique hallmark of lovingkindness and they get successively more trying as they get closer and closer to home.  Each new test pushes Abraham's Chesed nearer to the limit.

 

            What the introductory story of our parasha does, is to engrave deep into our minds the extent to which Abraham is a man of Chesed.  A soul formed in the image of kindness, hospitality, openness, expansive generosity - and truth.

 

Shabbat Shalom.