As this week’s parasha begins, Avraham is three days into recovery from his Bris Mila operation and, despite the obvious pain, he is resting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day hoping to welcome some passersby. The Torah tells us that Hashem Himself performs the mitzvah of Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick) appearing to Avraham as he lies in waiting:
And Hashem appeared to him (Avraham) in the plains of Mamrei, as he (Avraham) was sitting at the entrance to his tent. . . (Bereishit 18:1).
What happens next? One would expect some exchange of words between Avraham and Hashem but instead the Torah’s next verse goes on to tell us that Avraham lifted his eyes and saw three men standing before him:
And he lifted his eyes and he saw and behold three men were standing before him and he saw and he ran towards them to greet them from the entrance of the tent and they bowed to the ground. And he said ‘My master, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not leave your servant. Take a little water and wash your feet and rest under the tree. And I will get you some bread . . .’ (ibid 18:2-5)
What happened to Hashem’s appearing to Avraham? The simple reading of these pasukim seem to imply that Hashem appears and then Avraham sees the men and leaves Hashem to go and greet these three random passersby, to wash their feet and give them something to eat. While the continuation of the Torah and the Midrashim show that these three men were in fact angels – Rafael coming to heal Avraham and save Lot, Michael coming to tell of the news that Yitzchak will be born to Sarah, and Gavriel coming to destroy the cities of Sdom – nevertheless, it is not clear yet that Avraham knows this; and even if he did, it would still not excuse him running away from the Divine presence to go and greet them.
A further question we will ask is why the repetition of the “And he saw”? What did he see the second time that he did not see the first time?
To add to this conundrum of Avraham’s strange behavior Rashi refers to the verse quoted above where Avraham says to the men “My master, if I have found favor in your eyes , please do not leave your servant.” Rashi points out that the word in Hebrew here is ADON-AI (my Master) and that it can either be explained as referring to the head angel of the group (and thus the singular my master – and not the plural my ‘masters’) or it can be explained as Avraham talking to Hashem and the word My Master is the holy name ADON-AI, in which case Avraham is telling Hashem to wait there while he goes and greets these three strangers (Rashi, 18:3).
However you understand it, how could Avraham do such a thing? To leave Hashem ‘hanging’ so to speak? To walk away from a prophetic experience in order to greet some random men? Whether he said to Hashem “please just excuse me for a moment” or not – What was he thinking walking away from Hashem?
What is interesting is that Avraham is not criticized at all for this prioritization, rather the Gemara learns from these verses that indeed “offering hospitality to guests takes precedence over welcoming the Divine Presence” (Shavuot 35b).
In fact, elsewhere the Gemara teaches the law that if you are involved in your own spiritual growth experience of learning Torah and some other mitzvah presents itself – a favor someone needs help with or the like – if you are the only person available, you are obligated to sacrifice your personal experience and perform the action (Moed Katan 9b)..
Rav Uziel Milevsky zt”l, in his Ner Uziel, drawing on the above Gemaras, explained Avraham’s behavior in the following most beautiful way. Firstly, often in one’s spiritual growth, one can be driven by incredible passion and connection but yet only focus on the Man to G-d side of growth, forgetting the Man to Man aspects. The truth of course is that the two are inseparable. To be a truly holy person it is not enough to have a deep closeness with Hashem on a personal level, on a personal mission. One needs to realize that holiness in Judaism is expressed in how we reveal the light of Hashem in relating to others as well. Sometimes we think we are on a quest for holiness, but in our fervor and passion we can be a little selfish and tread all over half the Torah in the process. Further, the true expression of your connection to Hashem will be in how you bring that G-dliness into your interactions with others. This is the real test. Are you able to do what is spiritually right at the sacrifice of what spiritually feels good. Avraham understood this. His running to greet the three ‘men’ was not an interruption to his communication with Hashem but rather an extension, an expression, a continuation of this G-dly experience.
Truly great sages of Torah were and are always those whose holiness was not reserved for themselves but whose greatness was shown in how they were G-dly in their dealing with other people.
As a case in point, the incredible tzadik Rav Yosef Zundel of Salant (1800s) would disappear in the middle of the day from the Yeshiva when everyone else was deep into their learning. One day, one of the students curiously followed Rav Zundel to finally see what it was that was so important that warranted the great Rabbi to leave his Torah learning in the middle of the day. Where did the Rav disappear to? Well, in a road nearby, each day there was an old man who would push a heavy trolley of goods up the steep hill on his way home. Ever since Rav Zundel had noticed this he made sure to catch the man each day and push his heavy cart up the hill for him. This was what he secretly left the Beit Midrash for each day. This is a true expression of the Torah teaching that “Bitulo Zehu Kiyumo” – that sometimes, the negating of Torah learning is actually its fulfillment. Meaning, often ‘interrupting’ a personal (at times self-focused) spiritual experience to pursue a selfless, less ‘inspiring’ or ‘exciting’ activity, is in fact the fulfillment of the Torah and not it’s negation.
To do this requires special vision; we need to be able to see spiritual growth and holiness with a broad range of vision that looks beyond the selfish subjective good and looks to the objective important, the greater ‘right’. This is perhaps a meaning of the repetition of “And he saw” in the above quoted verses. The first “and he saw” referring to our first sight of something that needs to be done, but this ‘seeing’ is easily ignored and we often conveniently turn a blind eye, preferring to remain in our comfortable spiritual cocoon. The second “and he saw” however, refers to the understanding that it is right to ‘leave’ this personal spiritual experience and help out with what is also clearly holy, just not in the same obvious manner.
May we all merit to ‘see’ with the vision of Avraham and manifest and reveal G-dliness in all that we do,