Parashat Vayera begins by describing Avraham sitting by the entranceway to his tent during the heat of the day. Rashi, citing the Midrash, famously explains that Avraham was looking for wayfarers in need of hospitality, which he was very eager to provide. As Avraham had just undergone the procedure of circumcision and was thus physically frail, the Midrash tells, God brought exceptionally hot conditions so that people would not travel, in order to spare Avraham the trouble of having to tend to guests, and to allow him to recover from his circumcision. However, Avraham was eager to welcome guests despite his pain and frailty, and so he waited outside looking out for wayfarers. God sent the three angels to visit Avraham in order to fulfill his wish.
The Midrash’s comments are commonly understood as an expression of Avraham’s overpowering desire to perform acts of kindness, and how he persisted in his pursuit of opportunities for kindness even under adverse conditions. It is possible, however, that the Midrash’s depiction should be understood in terms of the specific context of Avraham’s circumcision. Avraham’s berit mila resulted in a degree of separation sorts between him and his contemporaries. The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 47) indeed comments that Avraham complained to God about this effect, how people would be far less likely to come to him and learn from him after hearing that he performed such an act. Performing berit mila not only threatened to frighten potential followers, who might worry that they would be expected to follow suit, but also served as a symbol of distinctiveness, as it created a permanent mark on Avraham’s body which would be made upon the bodies of his descendants. And thus whereas until now people were drawn and attracted to Avraham’s teachings and influence, now – Avraham feared – he would find himself isolated and separated from other people.
This perspective on Avraham’s condition may perhaps shed light on the Midrash’s depiction of his anxious effort to find guests. In the aftermath of his circumcision, Avraham felt lonely and isolated. He was eager to find people who would enter his tent and his sphere of influence even in his new stage of distinctiveness. And he thus waited outside, anxiously awaiting the opportunity to invite guests.
In this vein, we might also explain the significance of God’s appearance to Avraham in the opening verse of this parasha: “The Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamrei…” Some commentators understood this verse as an introduction to the story of the three angels; meaning, God appeared to Avraham in the form of three angels whom Avraham thought were wayfarers. Others, however, including Rashi, explained that God appeared to Avraham before the three angels arrived. The significance of this revelation should perhaps be understood in light of Avraham’s condition of anxiety and loneliness. At this moment, when Avraham worried about the repercussions of his berit mila, facing the prospect of isolation and solitude, God appeared to him. It was as if God was saying to Avraham – and to us, his descendants – “When you feel alone, I am with you; when you find yourself abandoned and forlorn, you have Me to rely upon.” God eventually sent the three angels to reassure Avraham, but first, He appeared to him to convey the message that he is never alone. Even though his unique status, signified by the mila, would result in a degree of isolation, he must not fear, because God would always accompany him, stand by his side, and offer him the assistance and protection he needs.
(Based on an article by Rabbi Shmuel Silber)