This week’s parasha, Vayeira, is one of those ‘pivotal moments’ in Jewish history. The text says:
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃2 וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃
3 וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֙א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃
4 יֻקַּֽח־נָ֣א מְעַט־מַ֔יִם וְרַחֲצ֖וּ רַגְלֵיכֶ֑ם וְהִֽשָּׁעֲנ֖וּ תַּ֥חַת הָעֵֽץ׃
5 וְאֶקְחָ֙ה פַת־לֶ֜חֶם וְסַעֲד֤וּ לִבְּכֶם֙ אַחַ֣ר תַּעֲבֹ֔רוּ כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֥ן עֲבַרְתֶּ֖ם עַֽל־עַבְדְּכֶ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ כֵּ֥ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר דִּבַּֽרְתָּ׃
“And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.
2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth
3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.
4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree,
5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on– since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.””
(Gen. 18:1-5 ESV)
Let’s put this in context. Abraham has circumcised himself as a sign of the covenant he and his household have with God. To recover, he is sitting outside his tent, under the tree’s shadow and, when he sees people walking through the desert, he jumps up and welcomes them with great enthusiasm.
Our tradition rightly learns from Abraham the mitzvah exemplified by him of ‘hachnasat orchim’ or ‘welcoming the guests.’ We are supposed to be not just welcoming, but embracing and enthusiastic.
What I think gets lost in understanding this episode is the very beginning of the parasha. ‘And God appeared.’ The running to welcome the guests and the appearance of God are not coincidental. In fact, without God’s appearance, we can wonder whether Abraham would even have recognized his visitors; visitors who turned out to be angels as Abraham quickly figured out.
I take a meaningful lesson from this passage. To perceive the holy, the first thing we need to do is ‘sit outside our tent.’ That is, we have to look outward and we have to look outside ourselves. True, God may be found deep within us, but if we only look inward, we become spiritual hermit crabs, protecting ourselves only. Judaism wants us to look inward, to be sure, but it also insists on looking outwardly. The reality of God is found in every moment and in every person. To embrace that truth is to perceive the voice of God. When we hear that voice – when God is revealed to us – we find the enthusiasm and the joy in running to meet the face of God in another person. And, who knows? Such a person may be an angel.
An angel in Jewish tradition is a ‘messenger.’ They are assigned by God and have only one job, whatever that job is. But there is a different kind of angel, too. In our tradition, there is an idea that there are 36 righteous people without whom the world would not function. It comes from a Talmud passage that says in every generation 36 righteous “greet the Shechina the Divine Presence (Tractate Sanhedrin 97b; Tractate Sukkah 45b). The interesting thing is that they don’t know who they are (although there are variations of this mystical tradition when some do know who they are.) They are hidden (that is why they are called ‘Hidden Righteous Ones.’) They are the protectors of the Jewish people, to be sure. But more importantly, without them the world itself would collapse.
I prefer the image of the Lamed Vavnik – one of the 36 – over the image of the angel. An angel is really nothing more than a robot. A Righteous One is a full human being with all the characteristics of a human being. But their righteousness is inspirational. The image of hearing God’s voice to be aware to possibility that the other person literally holds the world on their shoulders inspires great respect and honor. It is this image of knowing that the other is one of the pillars of the world that can totally change the way we deal with another person. ‘Welcoming the stranger’ is simply about feeding them and giving them a place to sleep. It is about an attitude of the heart.