The Torah portion for this weeks begins with a famous story, albetit, rather unusual. Abraham has just been circumcised at 90 years old (!) and is sitting by the opening of his tent when he sees three strangers either pass by or appear in front of him (the text is sort of ambiguous about this). In any event, when Abraham finally does greet them he says:
וַיֹּאמַ֞ר אֲדֹנְָי אִם־נֶָא מָצָ֣אתִי חֵןֶ בְּעֵינֶ֭יךָ אַל־נָ֜א תַעֲבֹ֝ר מֵעַ֜ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ:
יֻקַּֽח־נָ֤א מְעַט־מַ֭יִם וְרַחֲצ֝וּ רַגְלֵיכֶ֞ם וְהִֽשָּׁעֲנ֝וּ תַּ֜חַת הָעֵֽץ:
וְאֶקְחֶָה פַת־לֶ֩חֶם וְסַעֲד֣וּ לִבְּכֶםֶ אַחַ֤ר תַּעֲבֹ֭רוּ כִּֽי־עַל־כֵּ֜ן עֲבַרְתֶּ֝ם עַֽל־עַבְדְּכֶ֞ם
“My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on — seeing that you have come your servant’s way…”
Many commentators have been confused about the word
אֲדֹנְָי – Adonai – used by Abraham. After all, the word means “Lord” but it is not the usual Tetragrammaton – a fancy way of referring to the four letter name of God usually rendered יהוה – Adonai.
According to the Ohr HaHayyim (Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar also known as the Ohr ha-Chaim after his popular commentary on the Pentateuch, was a Talmudist and kabbalist; born at Meknes, Morocco, in 1696; died in Jerusalem, Israel July 7, 1743. He was one of the most prominent rabbis in Morocco) the three ‘men’ that appeared before Abraham were in the guise of a thief, a sailor and an Arab (which was the code word for any pagan and also a Roman). He teaches us that the reason these ‘men’ appeared was to teach a lesson about Abraham – a lesson for us to emulate.
The three men represent the three kinds of people – faith-wise. The sailor is the pious man since they are always aware of the great power of God in the universe. The thief is the one who lacks any kind of trust or faith in God since, if he had any awareness of God’s Presence, he would certainly not be a thief. And, finally, the Arab – the Roman, the pagan – who does not believe in God at all.
When Abraham goes to meet them to feed them and was their feet he did so so as to draw them into teaching about God and faith in God. The sailor did not need the lesson and to him is directed the phrase, “And let me fetch a morsel of bread.” Bread refers to the hidden secrets of the Torah. The righteous sailor already had faith and now he knew the secrets of the revealed texts. To the Arab, the pagan, Abraham says, “Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.” The idea is that the ground is filthy and that by washing his feet, he was washing the filth away. Finally, to the thief who denied God, Abraham directed the verse, “recline under the tree,” which was Abraham’s way of teaching that the only sustenance one truly acquires comes not from theft but from God.
This is a brilliant commentary by esteemed teachers. They parse a verse into three distinct parts referring to three different people and teach an ethical lesson from it. It is a wonderful example of the Rabbinic imagination. But it is more than that for when our Sages take time to write something, they are trying to teach something.
In this verse, our teachers want us to see that Abraham met each person where he was at and taught them Torah according to their own place. There was no judgement that so-and-so did not learn Torah and was somehow lacking in goodness or potential. In fact, Abraham treated each one like a king and turned from his own needs (remember, he was just circumcised the other day!) to serve and to teach.
This is a wonderful lesson for anyone who finds themselves teaching anything. There are always a wide variety of students and experiences. None of us are born knowing anything except the basic instincts. We still have to be taught and even geniuses in one area still need instruction in other areas. The greatest ‘Rennaisance man’ still needs a teacher to teach him a language he doesn’t know that a four-year native does! How we approach that task makes us either an cantankerous and irascible and useless professor or an Abraham whose ability to teach Torah in so many ways to so many different kinds of people enlightens and inspires. And what is true in teaching is true in every other part and phase of our lives.