Abraham is depicted as a person committed to kindness, specifically welcoming in guests. A closer look at Abraham's actions sheds light just how far reaching this Mitzvah is. There are also profound lessons here in the realm of social justice.
This week’s Torah portion begins with the story of God visiting Abraham. As if a visit from God is not strange enough, what happens next really takes us by surprise.
While Abraham is visiting with God, three strangers pass by Abraham’s tent.
Now, let’s pause the scene. What would you do in this situation? What would you do if you were talking to God and out of the corner of your eye you noticed three strangers walking by your home?
Abraham does the unexpected...he asks God to wait a moment while he tends to the needs of the passers-by!
Here is the text (Gen. 18:3) along with the commentary of Rashi.
וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃
he said, “ “My Lord (God).” if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.”
According to Rashi, Abraham “asked God to wait for him whilst he ran and invited the travelers.”
Abraham risks his own spiritual growth in favor of taking care of strangers. Maybe Abraham could have become an even greater spiritual giant had he devoted all of his time to developing his personal piety. He was willing to forgo that possibility for the sake of these strangers.
Rabbi Shai Held notes that the visit by the strangers takes place at “the most inconvenient possible moment—it is the hottest part of the day, and in any case, he is in the middle of an encounter with God.”
Despite the high stakes and the unfortunate timing, Abraham welcomes the wanderers.
There is another key idea here.
Abraham’s choice is understood in a radical way by the sages of the Talmud who declare, “ גְּדוֹלָה הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִין מֵהַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי שְׁכִינָה, “Hospitality toward guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence”. The profound meaning of this statement is driven home by Rabbi Yehuda Loew - known as the Maharal of Prague who says:
הכנסת אורחים כבוד אלהים עצמו להכניס האורח לבית ולכבדו בשביל שנברא בדמות ובצלם אלהים, ודבר זה נחשב כבוד השכינה עצמה
“welcoming guests is equivalent to honoring God. To welcome a guest into your home and treat them with respect because they are created in the likeness and image of God—this is considered like honoring the Shekhinah itself.”
The Maharal states that the Divine likeness of the visitor is reserved only for someone the host has never met before. This is a beautiful idea. Often it is the unknown person or unfamiliar culture that makes us the most uncomfortable or fearful. By attaching the Divine image specifically to the mysterious stranger, the Maharal teaches that rather than reject the unknown, we must recognize the Divine mystery in it and embrace it as we embrace and desire to come close to God.
The unknown person is now transformed from being viewed as a threat to being understood as a “stand in” for God. This is what Abraham saw.
I think about these ideas when I consider the debates surrounding immigration and welcoming refugees into the United States. The circumstances surrounding Abraham’s actions remind us that opening our home (personal or national) may not be the most intuitive action in that moment. Abraham chose to overcome those initial hesitations (see here and here for facts on the positive contributions that immigrants make and here on how reducing immigration hurts the economy) and recognize the positive impact that welcoming guests would have on his life. In fact, the remainder of the story reveals that each of those “men” actually made a positive contribution.
Of course, none of this should come as a surprise to us as Avraham was an immigrant from the start. וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהֹוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמּֽוֹלַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃ The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. (Gen, 12:1) Following his career, we see how Avraham experienced different types of “welcomes” and experiences as a stranger and newcomer. No doubt his personal experience impacted how he interacted with newcomers.
What do we see when we encounter a newcomer?
(The episode with the three travelers is not the end of Avraham’s activism or what we can learn from him. Consider Avraham’s protestations on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah - Gen. 18:17-27. When Abraham perceived injustice, he addressed the one with Power (God) and engages in political advocacy. Avraham advocated for people he did not know and with whom he had no personal connection. We also learn about the value of regardless of whether or not one’s efforts will succeed. These insights are gleaned from the “Social Justice: The Heart of Judaism in Theory and Practice” curriculum of the Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning.)
Rabbi Barry Gelman
Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the ERJCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism.