Parshat Vayera: What could be greater than meeting Hashem Himself?
Do you greet your neighbor warmly when you meet him or her? Do you greet the security guard at the shopping mall without being prompted to do so? Our forefather Abraham treated even the lowliest of people with respect, even though he had more than enough reason not to do so.
Betzalel Safra is the director of OTS’s Yachad Program for Jewish Identity
Could there be anything greater than meeting Hashem? In this week’s parsha, Abraham receives several guests. The Talmud (Tractate Shabbat 126) comments on this episode, stating that “Receiving guests is greater than welcoming the countenance of the Divine Presence” – because although Abraham was deeply engaged in a conversation with Hashem, he leaves this lofty prophetic plane to greet the guests, who surely could have returned another day.
The Midrash adds that the guests seemed particularly lowly, since they had “prostrated themselves to the dust of their feet.” Was it worth interrupting a prophecy for such a ragtag bunch? Prophecy, after all, is considered the highest level a human being can attain.
The Maharal uses this example to explain the path of gmilut hasadim, of being kind to others.
“Welcoming guests – because they were created in the image of God, this is considered tantamount to revering the Divine Presence… for when welcoming the countenance of the Divine Presence, one never gazes at the countenance itself, as the verse states, ‘for man shall not gaze at me and live’, and in welcoming guests, one respects other human beings, as if one has chanced upon a new face, and one completely connects with the Divine Image. A new face, just like a guest that one welcomes into one’s home, after having made the first connection with the guest, this is considered akin to connecting with the Divine Presence, and these things are indeed profound…”
In other words, the encounter with the “path of prophecy” may indeed be very great, but it is still an abstract and theoretical encounter, and to a great extent, it is attained through our power of imagination. Yet the encounter with the image of God in man, here in the physical plane, is tantamount to an encounter with the Divine Presence Itself, and Abraham is deeply connected to this Divine Presence. Another example of how the value of human brotherhood is greater than the name of Hashem appears in the chapter of sotah, the woman accused of adultery, when Hashem’s name is effaced in order to preserve a peaceful relationship between husband and wife. This is because the name of Hashem, inscribed into the marital life of a loving couple, is greater than the name of Hashem written on parchment, notwithstanding its sanctity. The Divine Presence, Itself, is the revealed image of God, and it dwells among living human beings.
This message carries a powerful message regarding our everyday lives. Do we see the Divine Presence in every human being we encounter? Do we treat that Divine Presence with the appropriate reverence? Can we make out the Divine Presence in our spouses or children?
How can we allow ourselves to victimize others? Wouldn’t that mean harming the Divine Presence?
“And Rabbi Ḥanina says: One who slaps the cheek of a Jew is considered as though he slapped the cheek of the Divine Presence” (Tractate Sanhedrin, p. 58).
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook explains that “… in each and every Jew, young and old, the light of Hashem lives in glory of Holiness. This light burns and illuminates, and anyone who slaps the cheek of a Jew is considered as though he slapped the cheek of the Divine Presence. The imagination that sees a sophisticated Divine revelation in the appearance of any Jew is an outcome of the prophetic spark…” (Orot, p. 171)
If the Divine Presence dwells in each of us, this is sufficient reason for us to revere both young and old. Do you greet your neighbor warmly when you meet him or her? Do you greet the security guard at the shopping mall without being prompted to do so? Do you treat everyone in the community with respect, or do you only respect the wealthy or the most popular members of the community? Our forefather Abraham treated the lowliest of people with respect, even though he had enough reasons not to do so. He was sick, he had just undergone circumcision at an advanced age, and he was a dignified individual.
But Abraham does not make these kinds of calculations. When he see people, he sees the Divine Presence, and he runs out to greet them. Would that we merit for Abraham to truly be our father, and for us to genuinely see the Divine Presence in each individual. When that happens, the Divine Presence will truly dwell in our land.