At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira eilav Adonai b’elonei mamrei — Adonai appears to Avraham on the plains of Mamre, while Avraham sits at his open tent in the heat of the day. The word “Vayeira” is the Hebrew word for revelation and, indeed, it is only with this Torah portion, that God is, at last, “revealed” — until now, until Avraham’s recent trials, culminating last week with his acceptance of the covenant through circumcision, he only saw God “bamachazeh” — in a vision. Avraham (who has only just recently become “avraham – the father of nations” ) has obviously attained a lofty enough spiritual state that God is now clearly revealed to him – vayeira.
So let’s imagine Avraham, if we can, sitting at his open tent on a blazing hot afternoon in the desert, having just gone through tremendous physical and emotional upheavals in his life. Whatever his recent encounters with God have entailed, they have resulted in Avraham changing his name, changing the purpose of his life and the nature of his relationship with this God who no one else really takes seriously — this God who has made him wealthy and famous, but who has also promised him that his ninety year old wife will have a child soon. And so this nearly 100-year-old man has sworn to uphold a covenant that he thinks he understands and, to show good faith, has circumcised himself and all his family (it doesn’t say in what order) with whatever surgical tools he has at had in the desert // in the Bronze Age.
He did this three days ago. We can imagine that he might not feel his best sitting here today, on the plains of Mamre, at his open tent in the heat of the day.
But what can you do? Maybe it takes this kind of commitment, this kind of sacrifice, this kind of intense focus to create the necessary mental and spiritual state to receive enlightenment — the text doesn’t go into any of that. We just turn the page and the first three words are “Vayeira eilav Adonai” — God was revealed to him.
And so what does he do? Here is the greatest experience that a seeker can ever hope to attain, the moment when you find yourself in the presence of the Divine. The veils have lifted, the breath is still, all is One. But he puts off the experience for a moment. Avraham, in effect, asks God to please wait just a couple minutes so he can be perform the mitzvah of hachnasat archim — hospitality to strangers — to three Arabs he notices heading in his direction. Doing a kindness to three strangers is — right now — more important than being in the presence of God. “just wait two minutes,” he says, “I’ll be right back.”
Now Avraham is 99 years old and has been a pillar of kindness, compassion and hospitality for years. He was sitting, as was his custom, with his tent opened to the North, South, East and West, waiting for visitors, ready to serve them food and drink. And remember, this wasn’t a little canvas tent in the sand. Avraham was exceedingly wealthy. He took good care of his guests — they ate well. Clearly, to Avraham, this was more than just a charitable thing to do. Divine revelation or not, attending to the needs of guests was a crucial mitzvah.
In fact, there are only three mitzvot — 3 commandments — that the Rabbis derive from the entire book of Genesis. The first is brit milah — circumcision, and the other two are visiting the sick, which they learn from God appearing to Avraham here on the third day after his circumcision — and the mitzvah of hospitality to strangers, of welcoming guests.
Now, here in Vayeira, God is visiting a sick person (recovering from circumcision) at a time when the sick person is immersed in the mitzvah of welcoming guests. And so it would seem from the text that at least one type of Divine revelation happens precisely at the juncture of at least two of these mitzvot.
What’s so special about visiting the sick or welcoming guests? Well, they’re mitzvot that we do specifically for other people. This is not prayer and it’s not ritual activity. There’s nothing symbolic here and there’s no direct connection to God. We are doing a kindness for someone who isn’t necessarily expecting it, without our expecting anything in particular in return. In a sense, Avraham himself is the messenger to these three wanderers, and his message is one of sustenance and hope. It’s only afterwards that he comes to realize that they’ve come with special messages for him.
Now the Rabbis understand these three strangers to be angels, or, in some way, agents of Divine destiny. The word for angel in Hebrew is malach — this is also the word for messenger. Rabbi David Cooper, in his book, “God is a Verb” — envisions all of us as messengers who are carrying around random pieces from other people’s jigsaw puzzles. We meet someone, we do a kindness for a stranger — something silly and simple — and it turns out that it’s the most meaningful event of their lives. We can’t imagine how this can be, but then it happens to us. Some statement, some action affects us so profoundly, and the person responsible for this great revelation in our lives just shrugs and says, “You’re welcome, it was nothing.” Avraham sees three Arabs in the desert and he turns away from a revelation of God that he’s been cultivating for years — to do what? Give them food and drink. It’s nothing, it’s no big deal, just something he always does. It’s his custom. And who benefits by these actions? Who’s been benefitting by his actions of kindness for over 80 years? They both benefit. The hungry and tired strangers he welcomes get a decent meal and a shady place to rest, and Avraham gets to keep delivering the messages. He keeps handing out missing pieces of other people’s jigsaw puzzles. What a gift that must be, to hold the finishing piece to all these people’s puzzles — Avraham gets to keep purifying his own spirit. And then, of course, these three insignificant strangers turn out to be messengers themselves, come to bring him and Sarah tidings beyond their wildest imagination — the one piece of their own puzzle that they gave up looking for decades ago — they’re going to have a son.
It’s important to understand the interlocking — the inter-linking nature of all this. Vayeira teaches us that the tzedakah we do, the kindness we do for others ultimately makes us better people through our concern for somebody else — a neighbor, a friend, a member of the community. And yes, the prayers we pray ultimately have the greatest effect on us — making us more spiritually sensitive and attuned regardless of whether the prayers are answered or not. But they also do have meaning for our fellow travellers — we actually are affecting others in ways more meaningful than we can ever know. We’re all in this together.
This is why God tells Avraham in the next chapter, “Pray! If 50 innocent people are found, if 40, if 30…” I will not destroy Sodom until you pray. Why? I know your prayers will not be effective. I know Sodom is doomed. But that’s irrelevant. You, Avraham, will become a different person as a result of these prayers, a better person, and that person will be better prepared to do even greater acts for others. Your greatest trials are still to come — the ones who really need you are yet to be born. Your greatest messages may not have yet been delivered.
And so we’re all messengers — we’re all each other’s angels. Everyone best pursues their own individual path of personal evolution by helping others best pursue their own individual path of personal evolution by helping others, etc., etc. Sometimes the trial is ours, and sometimes the revelation is ours. Sometimes we’re in the unlikely position of changing someone’s life, and sometimes we’re just sitting there at our open tent in the heat of the day, and we look up, and we see three strangers.
How we behave next makes all the difference.