By Rabbi Etan Mintz
The parshah this week opens with the famous image of God appearing to Abraham as he sits at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. The story gets complicated right away, as it appears that Abraham quickly leaves God in order to tend to three men who also appear at the entrance of his tent. He washes their feet and provides them food, water and shelter, all while seemingly snubbing his most prominent guest.
How could Abraham put God on hold and run to greet his guests instead? The Sages (Shabbat 127A) tell us that this story teaches us precisely this most remarkable principle, that welcoming guests is an even greater mitzvah than greeting the Divine presence. Even a conversation with the Divine gets placed aside in order to perform such a virtuous deed of welcoming guests, and there are no greater teachers of this than Abraham and Sarah.
There is another way to elucidate this narrative. Some meforshim state that actually what we are seeing here is a general story followed by its specifics. That is to say, in verse one, God appears to Abraham. The verses that follow describing the three guests are the details of how God appeared to him in verse one — God appears as three men. According to this interpretation, Abraham is not leaving God to tend to the guests, but rather God is appearing in the form of these three angels.
There is yet another explanation. The text repeatedly uses the verb “vayera,” first in verse one when God appears to Abraham, then twice in verse two when Abraham raises his eyes and sees three men standing near him and again when it states that he sees them and runs toward them. This repetition, which denotes not only seeing but a prophetic seeing, can be understood as Abraham going deeper and deeper into a state of seeing and understanding Divinity. At the first vayera, Abraham sees God, but only as a distant Divinity. He then sees the holiness of his fellow human — in the form of men or angels approaching him as guests, and he sees their humanity by providing for their physical needs. The next stage of this prophecy is a synthesis of these experiences. The God and human encounters are interwoven — he sees God through the experience of the strangers. What begins as a God experience turns into a human-to-human encounter, only to be elevated by the realization that these two experiences are one. One can come close to God through looking to the heavens, but one can also experience Hashem by seeing the Divine in one’s neighbor and even a stranger.
The Talmud suggests that this story teaches that welcoming guests is even greater than greeting the Divine presence. But perhaps they are one and the same: Welcoming guests is greeting the Divine presence. If only we can see it!
Rabbi Etan Mintz is the spiritual leader of B’nai Israel Synagogue Baltimore.