Greater is Hospitality to Wayfarers than Receiving the Divine Presence.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, Parshat Vayera 10/22/10
14 Heshvan, 5771
This week we are living with Parshat Vaera, one of the great portions of the Torah. It includes the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, the trials of Hagar and Yishmael, and the promise, birth, and the binding of Isaac. These chapters have received the attention of scholars, poets, musicians, and artists for centuries. I will add my small contribution by focusing this week on the beginning chapter, 18. Here are the first four verses.
1. And the Lord appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground, 3. And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I beseech you, from your servant;4. Let a little water, I beseech you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree;
In this text, we see Abraham getting up (he was actually hobbled from his circumcision according to Rashi) to greet the guests who we learn later are angels sent by God. The bolded "My Lord" is the word in Hebrew, "Adonai", not spelled with the tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God, but the Hebrew word alef dalet nun, yud, which actually means "my Lords" or "my Sirs". In Tractate Shevu'ot in the Talmud there is a debate on how to read this word. I bring the passage with footnotes from the Soncino translation of the Talmud.
"All the Names mentioned in Scripture in connection with Abraham are sacred, except this which is secular: it is said; And he said, My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sigh.8 Hanina, the son of R. Joshua's brother, and R. Eleazar b. Azariah in the name of R. Eliezer of Modin, said, this also is sacred.9 With whom will [the following] agree? Rab Judah said that Rab said: Greater is hospitality to wayfarers than receiving the Divine Presence. With whom [will this agree]? With this pair.10"
(8) Gen. XVIII, 3; Abraham was addressing the chief of the three men who came towards him: according to midrash they were the angels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael.
(9) He was addressing the Lord.
(10) R. Hanina and R. Eleazar who say that Abraham addressed the Lord, asking Him not to withdraw His Presence while he entertained the angels.
One view in the Talmud text sees "Adonai" as 'my sirs', which means that Abraham is talking to the men (angels). The other view is that Adonai is actually God, the same God who appeared to Abraham is being addressed by Abraham. Those who hold this view come up with a famous Talmudic and Jewish saying, " "Greater is hospitality to wayfarers than receiving the Divine Presence." Abraham has the Hutzpah to ask God who appeared to him to wait while he entertains his guests (who ironically are angels sent by God).
As many of you know, hospitality is my signature mitzvah, my most beloved mitzvah. I have emphasized this mitzvah in encouraging our members to host Shabbat dinners at home and at synagogue. I believe that this mitzvah is our "holy entertainment", our way of receiving people and sharing the holiness of Shabbat. God so loves this mitzvah, that he waits for Abraham to fulfill it.
My philosophy of community is centered on fostering a welcoming and inviting atmosphere that emphasizes the joy of Judaism and the joy of Shabbat. I think this one of the core teachings and practices of what it means to be a Jew. Without it our synagogues and homes lose the spark that make Judaism distinctive, beautiful, and attractive as a religious tradition. Consider making your home and our shul more welcoming. Make your table a place for celebration and welcoming guests. God will wait and actually if you notice carefully, will be in the room as you celebrate.
Rabbi Dov Gartenberg