Vayera – Going the Extra Mile
I struggle to understand the first passage of Vayera, the passage illustrating Abraham’s enthusiastic hospitality and care for others. The Midrash notes that it was the third day since Abraham’s circumcision, when his pain and weakness resulting from his surgery were at their peak. Furthermore, the verse describes the time of the day as k’chom hayom, when the sun was at its zenith. The Midrash views this as another expression of Abraham’s sincerity in serving others despite his discomfort.
When Abraham saw the three travellers passing near his home he ran to greet them although they were strangers. He proceeded to bow courteously to these men of the desert and implored them to avail themselves of his hospitality. He offered them water with which to bathe their feet from the dust of the road and offered them a place to relax in the shade of the tree while he prepared food for them. Sarah was drafted to prepare some fresh loaves of bread. Abraham selected his finest calf from the herd and enlisted the help of a member of his household to prepare it. When everything was ready Abraham served his guests, waiting on them to provide anything they might desire.
To describe Abraham’s hospitality as extravagant is an understatement. Who does this? Who has the time and resources to offer a 5 star spa experience to passerbys, attending personally to all their needs?
A curious Midrashic extrapolation is derived from the very first verse of the reading. “And the Lord appeared to him in Elonei Mamrei, and he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.” (Genesis 18:1) Rashi cites the Midrash in Bereshit Rabba, describing a conversation between the Lord and Abraham who were communicating at the time. Abraham wanted to stand, as he felt that was appropriate when communicating with God. The Lord bid Abraham to remain seated while He stood (so to speak). The Lord told Abraham that in the future He would stand over the court judges while they sit to adjudicate the law. The verse is Psalms (82) supports this: “God stands in the congregation of the Lord,” which is interpreted as ‘in the presence of judges.’
Rav Soloveitchik notes that the reference to judgment implies that Abraham was sitting in judgment at the time, but we know of no issue that Abraham was adjudicating at the time. R’ Soloveitchik, in the course of his answer, cites yet another Midrash. The Talmud in Yoma records a teaching of our sages: A poor person, a wealthy person and a sinner each appear before the heavenly courts. They are challenged in regards to their lack of engagement in Torah study. If the poor person claims he had no time due to his efforts to make ends meet he is introduced to Hillel the Elder, who was penniless yet he made great sacrifices to study Torah despite his poverty. If the wealthy person claims that the complexity of his estate demanded that he devote all of his time to managing it, precluding him from engaging in Torah study he is introduced to Rabbi Elazar ben Charsom, who inherited a vast fleet of merchant ships as well as many townships, but he still chose to devote his life to Torah study. If the sinner, in his defense, claims that he was overcome by his temptations he is introduced to Joseph, who resisted the advances and seduction of his master’s wife.
In all these instances the defense council is shot full of holes by the example of someone who had similar challenges and overcame them, demonstrating that it is possible to buck the trend. Without such a model for overcoming the challenges the defense would likely stand, but in light of these personalities who demonstrated that it is possible to act differently to one’s instincts the defense falls apart. Abraham was such a person. Abraham resisted defaulting to common behaviors and norms because they were wrong and immoral. Abraham did not actively judge others, but his presence and conduct created a contrast between right and wrong without his intent to judge.
Abraham’s visitors had another mission apart from visiting Abraham. They were going to destroy Sodom and some neighboring cities due to their corruption and depravity. The people living in these cities were ordinary citizens, who followed the moral code of their society. Why are they held responsible for living in accordance with the code of conduct espoused by their society? How could commanders in the Nazi army be prosecuted for following orders? The prior Midrash contains the answer to that. Abraham lived nearby. Abraham lived a life of virtue and integrity; he served as a model of the finest in humanity, demonstrating kindness and compassion. When the visitors rose to leave the verse states that “they set their gaze upon Sodom.” (18:16) Rav Soloveitchik explains that because they were in Abraham’s presence the state of Sodom was brought into sharp relief and the wrath of God was invoked. The Nazi commanders also had plenty of exposure to decency. Following a profoundly wicked doctrine was a choice that they were ultimately responsible for.
One final Midrashic account: The Talmud in Gittin cites a Midrash which appears in Eicha Rabba, regarding a mother (Josephus names her as Channah) and her seven sons who gave up their lives rather than commit idolatry. The sevens sons were brought in succession before the ruler and each one was instructed to worship. Each child in turn refused, citing a verse from the Torah prohibiting such worship. When the seventh and youngest child was presented the ruler softened his tone, hoping to win his way with this one so he will not be humiliated by his failure to persuade any of the boys. But the child merely mocked the ruler for even thinking that his honor took precedence over the honor of the Master of the Universe. All the boys were placed before the executors and their grief-stricken but proud mother threw herself upon them. She told them that when they arrived at the heavenly gates they should seek out Abraham and tell him, “you offered one child on the altar and I offered seven.” She then threw herself from the roof and died together with her sons.
Commentaries (I haven’t been able to find the source at this time) point out that the mother’s concluding words can be read as hubris. Is she mocking Abraham, expressing that her sacrifices are greater than his? Her words may have been an expression of the tremendous sacrifice that she made, but the commentaries conclude that she was not boasting. The grieving mother was expressing gratitude and giving credit to Abraham for forging the path of sacrifice. Her ability, and the ability of every Jew, to make sacrifices for the sake of our beliefs and traditions, stem from Abraham’s acceptance of God’s will. In his readiness to give up his own son in the Binding of Isaac Abraham wrote the code that has become part of our spiritual DNA, enabling us to make similar sacrifices. Through his own modelling Abraham created strengths and potential in his progeny to continue walking on the narrow path of faith.
The most effective means of education is through example. We don’t learn best by being told what is correct, we learn best by seeing and experiencing. Abraham influenced many thousands of people through modelling; he inspired many to make life choices that reflected morality and good values. The great monotheistic religions of the world are known as the Abrahamic faiths, attributing to Abraham their foundation because he established the path. Abraham remains the father of monotheism. His impact resonate for billions of people throughout the world. The lessons we learn from Abraham continue to form our values and ethics to this day. The Torah deliberately records Abraham’s extravagant hospitality to show us that we can do a little more to help others, that we can sometimes go out of our way.