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Vayera is possibly the most commented-upon sidra in the Torah. With its compelling stories of Hagar’s exile, the prediction and fulfilment of Isaac’s birth, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the Binding of Isaac as its highlights, there certainly is plenty to discuss.
Right at the beginning of the sidra we are given a compelling picture of Abraham’s character. According to tradition, this scene takes place three days after Abraham “circumcised himself” and all of the members of his household. While resting and recovering from his fulfilment of the brit milah commandment,
The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. (Gen. 18:1)
The Torah sets the scene in the form of a prophetic vision. According to Nachmanides,
Why does Scripture begin the chapter with the statement, “And God appeared to him,” when in the detailed account of the vision it is explained that he saw only angels?… Such words contradict Scripture. It is forbidden to listen to them; all the more to believe them.... Do not be misled by the chapter separation [between this sidra and the previous]. It is all one story.1
Nechama Leibowitz explains this viewpoint thus:
…the opening verse of the sidra is not a title giving the main content of the succeeding narrative, but it is rather the conclusion to the previous chapter, the Divine revelation constituting the climax and reward of Abraham’s obedience.2
A well known midrash in Genesis Rabbah on this verse3 elaborates on Abraham’s tent. It was open on all sides, allowing Abraham to see people in all directions and to let any passing stranger know that he was welcome. This is why the wedding chuppah is open on all sides; it is to remind us of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, demonstrated here by Abraham in welcoming the strangers and making them feel at home. Then Abraham,
Looking up, [he] …saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground. (18:2)
The Talmud says, “God visited the sick, as it is written, ‘And the Lord [the three strangers who were messengers of God] appeared [to Abraham] at the terebinths of Mamre.’”4 By implication, these messengers, a manifestation of God, visited Abraham to distract him from the pain of his recent circumcision. This interpretation can be based on the Hebrew word adonai, which can mean both “my lords” (human) and “my Lord” (divine). Also, the Hebrew very clearly refers to the three as “anashim,” the common term for “men.” If Abraham was experiencing God in a vision, seeing the men brought him fully awake. Based on this incident, the Talmud says providing hospitality is even more important than remaining at prayer.
Who were these three men? It’s not apparent from their appearance that there was anything special about them at first. From the juxtaposition of the beginning of the first verse, vayera adonai. with the second, “looking up, he saw...” tradition infers that the three men were God’s Divine messengers and they were the vehicle through which God “appeared to him.” Maimonides comments,
You find prophets who see angels as though they were human individuals. “Three men.” Others from among them see [an angel] as if he were a man causing terror and amazement. Others from among them see [an angel] as fire. To Avraham, whose power was great, they appeared in the likeness of men; to Lot, whose power was weak, they appeared in the likeness of angels.5
Commentators have also pointed to the exuberance and purpose with which Abraham greeted his guests. In Gen. 18:2–7, this is expressed with a series of active verbs: “he ran,” “Abraham hastened,” “quickly take,” “Abraham ran,” and “a servant-boy…hastened.” The rapid-fire use of ran, hastened, quick, ran, and hastened all serve to emphasize the enthusiasm and eagerness with which Abraham and Sarah performed the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim.
The Rabbis derived many interpretations from these few verses. Among these are that the mitzvah of hospitality supercedes prayer, since, according to Nahum Sarna, hospitality is itself a form of worship. As the Talmud puts it, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.”6 Furthermore, one should hasten to do mitzvot and do them with enthusiasm and eagerness.
Abraham and Sarah are both rewarded for their hospitality, not only with the promise of a son. They both engage in a direct dialog with God, and this is a unique occurrence in the Bible. Rarely does the Bible offer the woman’s perspective, but here, Sarah laughs to herself at the thought that she, at an advanced age, will bear a child. God chastens her for doubting His ability to perform this miracle, and then, to her denial about her laughing, God says, “You did laugh.”
The guests take their leave, but Abraham continues his dialog with God over saving any righteous people in Sodom, and the rest, as they say, is history.
1. Nachmanides, Commentary on the Torah, Vayeira.
2. Leibowitz, Nechama, New Studies in Bereshit, p. 161.
3. Genesis Rabbah 48:9.
4. Mishnah Sota 14a.
5. Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part I, Ch. VI..
6. Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 127a.
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