Parshat Vayera (Mussar perspective)

Abraham's tent
Bereishit 18:1-10 (Robert Alter, trans)
And the LORD appeared to him in the Terebinths of Mamre when he was sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day. And he raised his eyes and saw, and, look, three men were standing before him. He saw, and he ran toward them from the tent flap and bowed to the ground. and he said,
“My lord, if I have found favor in your eyes please do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be fetched and bathe your feet and stretch out under the tree, and let me fetch a morsel of bread, and refresh yourselves. Then you may go on, for have you not come by your servant?” And they said, “Do as you have spoken.” And Abraham hurried to the tent to Sarah and he said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of choice semolina flour and make loaves.” And to the herd Abraham ran and fetched a tender and goodly calf and gave it to the lad, who hurried to prepare it. And he fetched curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and he set these before them, he standing over them under the tree and they ate.

This encounter is the archetype in Judaism for chesed and hospitality.

What words are repeated in the verses?

The text is full of activity — it also represents a prototype in mussar thought of zerizut, which is enthusiasm, energetic committment, or zeal.

What does Abraham tell his guests and then what does he do?

Henach Leibowitz, Majesty of Man
Abraham’s behavior is an example of derech eretz , literally the “way of the world”, sometimes translated as common decency.

“From the emphasis given to these incidents, it is evident that Hashem considers derech eretz just as important as the other laws in the Torah. The requirements and details of derech eretz as it applies to different generations in varying situations cannot be codified , as other laws are in the
Shulchan Aruch. More effort and perception are necessary to extract them from the Torah, and to
apply them to our own daily actions.”

What are some examples of derech eretz you recently acted on or experienced?

Henach Leibowitz, Majesty of Man
Rabbi Leibowitz describes a question that Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slobadka (founder of the Slobadka school of Mussar) asked about these verses. According to the Midrash, when King Nimrod threatened Abraham with death if he did not bow to idols, Abraham chose death in a fiery furnace. Yet the Torah does not mention that story but instead has this story of hospitality. Isn’t sanctification of God’s name through martyrdom the greatest act? Rabbi Finkel answers no. In Rabbi Leibowitz’s words, “When fulfilled with the devotion, totality of spirit and energy of Avraham Avinu, chesed has the potential to be the greatest kiddush Hashem — even greater than giving one’s very life to sanctify Hashem.”

Rabbi Leibowitz cautions his student’s that chesed should not be trivialized:
“chesed can be much more than mechanically dropping a quarter into a pushka. If we immerse our entire beings into helping our fellow man whenever the need arises, we can fashion out of that chesed a masterpiece that Hashem considers priceless.”

Why does Abraham’s act of hospitality seem especially great — a masterpiece?

Pirkei Avot 1: 5
Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: Let your home be wide open, and the poor be members of your household.

The following is cited by Rabbi Dessler, Strive for Truth!
Avot de-Rabbi Natan
[Avot de-Rabbi Natan is a midrash on Pirkei Avot]
“The poor should be members of your household.” Iyov [Job], too, was a very hospitable person … However, God said to him: Iyov, you have not even reached one half of the level of Abraham. You sit in your house and wayfarers enter. If one is used to eating meat, you give him meat; if one is
used to drinking wine, you give him wine. Avraham does not act in this way; he goes around the world [looking for guests] and when he finds them, he brings them into his house. Even to one who n is not used to eating meat he serves meat, and even to one who is not used to drinking wine he serves wine. Moreover, he built a large house by the crossroads and laid out in it food and drink, and whoever wanted would enter, partake of the food, and bless God in heaven. This is what gave Avraham pleasure. And whatever anybody asked for was available in Avraham’s house.

Rabbi Dessler
Here we see the difference between chesed and mercy. … He not only had pity on the needy people who came before him, but he searched for opportunities to do chesed. … chesed is only that which flows from one’s very being, without the need for external motivation — even the imperative of fulfilling one’s obligations.

In our world what might be examples of the difference between mercy and chesed towards homeless people? How do you understand the difference between pity and lovingkindness?

Devekut is God-consciousness. It is the highest attainment from a chassidic viewpoint.

Rabbi Dessler
What is beyond devekut? The service of chesed! This is the pure service, which … flows from the depth of one’s being, requiring no external or other type of aid whatsoever. A person who has reached this level need no longer fear tests and trials. Even though every test involves a certain withdrawal, in that Hashem deprives the person of His normal aid and support, the ba’al hessed does not require support. He has inner resources. His love and giving overflow from the deep happiness which fills his heart…. This world of pure chessed is higher even than the world of prophecy, which is the world of closeness to Hashem. What kind of religious or spiritual values is Rabbi Dessler prioritizing? Why is the ability to anticipate and serve needy people religiously significant?