Imagine Abraham’s surprise! There he was, minding his own business, resting in his tent in the hills near Hebron. Suddenly, God appears to Abraham. Without warning and without explanation. Looking up, Abraham sees the dust rising in the distance, and soon a group of strangers approach his tent. Without hesitation, Abraham leaps to his feet, ignoring God, and ignoring the pain he feels from his recent entry into the covenant with God through circumcision, and instead turns to these visitors.
Instinctively, Abraham extends an invitation to these visitors: “Come sit, eat, drink rest – I won’t take no for an answer.” With due haste, Abraham gathers the best of his provisions and offers the very best of Jewish hospitality. The men respond with a beautiful and lasting reward – they will return when Abraham and Sarah are blessed with the child for whom they have longed for so many years.
Abraham makes an amazing choice. Turning away from God, or at least asking God to “hold that thought,” Abraham turns towards the strangers. Who are these men? While one might assume that they are messengers from God, the Torah never identifies them as such. They are just men. Strangers, outsiders, refugees on the road, perhaps fleeing something, or seeking something new.
What they encounter in Abraham. A courageous man, who is willing to turn away from God, from personal attention from the Divine, in order to perform one of the simplest acts of human kindness and decency. He sees human beings whom he does not know and he believes that it is his responsibility to offer them sustenance, to feed them, to care for them, to provide them with a place to rest and rejuvenate. He does not hesitate – in fact, he rushes to serve their needs. Over and over again the Torah tells us that Abraham is anxious to do what he can to make a difference.
His kindness is rewarded, of course, as soon he learns that the strangers know what he and Sarah have not yet learned, that they will soon be blessed to be parents. The simple act of welcoming the stranger, showing hospitality to these refugees, invites blessing into the lives of this family.
The question for us, of course, is whether we, too can put God on hold long enough to do what God really wants us to do. Are we willing to recognize that our own needs, our own physical and spiritual well-being, are not diminished when we help others? In fact, when we ask God to wait and do the work of chessed (kindness) and generosity, we gain blessing for ourselves and those who come after us. Parashat Vayera reminds us that our mission is to do more, not less, to worry less about ourselves and more about the other, to welcome the stranger, to care for the other, to bring comfort to the weary. Our own needs will be fulfilled, our own blessings will increase. But first we must turn to the Other, in generosity, in openness and in compassion. First, we must roll up the flaps of our tents and see the Other. First, we must ask God to hold on for a while to allow us to get out there and do what must be done.
Rabbi James Bennett is the senior rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth, St. Louis, Missouri.