Parshat Vayera 5778

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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.

Rabbi Henach 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? The Alter of Slobadka answers no, that chesed is the greatest kiddush Hashem, as modeled by Abraham.

Why is Abraham’s act of hospitality a model of chessed? What do you notice about it that seems special?

Rabbi Wolbe writes that this passage is a shulchan aruch (“set table,” an in-depth compendium of rules) of chessed. These rules include:

  • Chesed is the highest service to God
  • It is possible to perform even in the midst of your own impediments or suffering (Abraham was 99 and had just been circumcised)
  • Your honor is not diminished by providng a kindness to another person, no matter how lowly
  • You should perform your kindness with your best effort and energetic commitment

Abraham’s commitment speaks to his attitude and perspective towards other people. He is not simply obliging or responding to other people – he is engaged with their needs, he is his brother’s keeper. The Mishnah and midrash discuss this depth:

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 [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 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.

Abraham is proactive in his chesed, he seeks people in need. His drive to help others emerges from his being, rather than being imposed on him by obligation or as a reaction to visible misery. It is a way of life for Abraham, in the words of Rabbi Michel Barenbaum. Abraham does not merely perform acts of chesed, he loves kindness, it is a desire for him.

Sotah 14
From beginning to end, the Torah is essentially about performing acts of chesed.

How do you understand the difference between pity and lovingkindness? Why is the ability to anticipate and serve needy people religiously significant?

Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz, the Rosh Yeshiva of the MIrrer (Jerusalem) Yeshiva, sees another lesson in Abraham’s act of chesed. The Talmud cites the events at Mamre as the foundation for the chesed of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The development of a middah is life-long and multi-generational. We grow by learning from our own experiences and reflecting on the experiences of previous generations. The process of developing chesed, or any other middah, is not solely the result of our immediate reactions.

An important practice in Mussar is chesbon ha-nefesh (accounting for the soul), which is daily journaling. Rabbi Shmulevitz teaches that our introspection should not solely be a recounting of our day’s experiences; we should also be attentive to the context of those experiences and how we are influenced (for good or bad) by preceding generations.

Thinking about your own perspectives on charity and chesed, how has your past or your parents’ past shaped those perspectives?