Parashat Vayera begins with the story of the three angels who visited Avraham, who, thinking they were ordinary wayfarers, warmly invited them and served them a lavish meal. In extending his invitation, Avraham offered, “…ve-sa’adu libekhem” (18:5), which might be roughly translated as, “eat heartily.”
Rashi, citing the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 48:11), comments on the fact that the Torah here uses the word “libekhem” to mean “heart,” instead of the alternative term, “levavkhem.” These two terms are, respectively, derivatives of the two similar words used for “heart” in Biblical Hebrew – leiv, and levav. The Midrash explains that the word “leivav” is used in reference to the heart of a human being, whereas “leiv” refers to that of angels. The explanation commonly given is that the word “levav,” which has two vav’s, alludes to the conflicting tendencies that struggle within human beings, the ongoing tension that exists in people’s hearts between right and wrong, good and evil, and the physical and spiritual realms. Angels, by contrast, have a “leiv” – a single desire and inclination, which is to fulfill God’s will, a desire that is not opposed by any other desire. The Torah here uses the word “libekhem” in the context of the meal served to the angels, the Midrash explains, because angels have a “leiv,” and not “levav.”
Many writers have raised the question of how the Midrash could make such a comment in light of the fact that this phrase – “ve-sa’adu libekhem” – was spoken by Avraham, who did not know at the time that he was speaking with angels. The angels appeared to him in the form of weary travelers, whom Avraham actually assumed were idolaters (Rashi, 18:4), and Avraham welcomed them and served them a meal – something he would certainly not have done for angels. Why, then, did he use the term “libekhem,” which the Midrash interprets as referring to angels, rather than the term for human beings – “levavkhem”?
One of the answers given to this question is that Chazal here allude to the possibility we all have of achieving a certain “angelic” quality. Tradition teaches that Avraham welcomed guests not only out of kindness and a desire to help people, but also as part of his campaign to spread knowledge and awareness of God. He would use the context of a meal to draw his guests’ attention to the Supreme Being who sustains us and to whom we are all indebted and obliged to serve. And this, perhaps, is the meaning of Chazal’s remark concerning the use of the term “libekhem” in this verse. It is alluding to the fact that by utilizing our mundane activities for sacred purposes, as Avraham did in serving meals to guests, we create a peaceful unity of the two otherwise conflicting aspects of our beings. We are capable of becoming “angelic” in the sense that we can use our base desires and instincts for lofty purposes, and engage in mundane activities in the pursuit of spiritual goals, whereby the two opposite dimensions of the human experience blend into one. And thus even when inviting human beings, Avraham used the term “libekhem,” alluding to the convergence of the physical and spiritual realms that occurred at the meals he served to his guests.
We might also suggest that symbolically, Chazal’s remark perhaps conveys a powerful educational message. Avraham welcomed people whom he thought were idolaters, but he spoke to them in “angelic” terms. When he looked upon these travelers, he saw the potential for “libekhem,” for their achieving “angelic” status. They key to Avraham’s success in disseminating belief in God was his firm belief in human potential. Even when he spoke to ordinary people who worshipped idols, he recognized the possibility of their rising to great heights. The Midrash thus teaches us of the need to recognize the human capacity for change, the potential all people have to grow and transform. Just as Avraham spoke to idolaters with the mindset that they could achieve near angelic stature, we, too, must recognize the potential latent within children, students, and all people, regardless of their current standing.