Vayera: Open Eyes, Heart, Mind and Hand
by Rabbi David Kalb
Rabbi David Kalb directs the Jewish Learning Center, a program of Ohr Torah Stone. He studied at Yeshivat Hamivtar and received semikha from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin.
This week’s Parsha teaches the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, the commandment of welcoming guests. At the beginning of the portion, Avraham (Abraham) is found sitting in his Ohel (tent), which, according to the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on Parshat Vayera, was designed in such a way that he could see visitors coming from all directions. In essence it was open on all four sides, enabling Avraham to not only to see any travelers who might be coming, but to indicate that those travelers would be welcome to food, drink or shelter.
Avraham was so committed to being open to welcoming guests that, according to the Talmud in Bava Metzia 86b, he sat out in the hot sun despite the fact that this was the third day after his Brit Milah (a religious circumcision). According to Bereishit (Genesis) 17:24, he was 99 years old at the time; imagine the painful state he was in, recovering from his circumcision at such an old age. The Parsha goes on to describe in detail how Avraham takes care of three travelers, (who according to Rashi, Bereishit 18:2, were melachim, angels.). He welcomes them and serves them a meal.
Obviously, this story is about Avraham’s willingness to open himself to guests. However, there is a deeper meaning as well. It is a powerful, symbolic idea that Avraham’s tent is opened up on all four sides. Perhaps we are supposed to learn something through this imagery, and through Avraham himself, a lesson about what it means to be “open.”
Mitzvot are not just about fulfilling certain religious responsibilities. Part of their purpose is to transform us. When a Mitzvah obligates us to do something kind for another person, there is more to it than the kind act that we are performing in that moment—that mitzvah should ingrain kindness and compassion as a true, reflexive characteristic within us. Therefore, when we are commanded to be open to welcoming guests, an additional goal is to, through that welcoming spirit, become open people, with open eyes, hearts, minds and hands.
Open eyes: The first lines of the Parshah are full of eye imagery and openness imagery. Bereishit 18:1 וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח-הָאֹהֶל“ – God appeared to him in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the opening of his tent”.
Line 2: וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל – “He lifted his eyes and saw: And behold, three men were standing over him, and he saw, so he ran toward them from the opening of his tent”.
First God appears to Avraham while he is sitting at the opening of his tent. Then his eyes see the three guests that Avraham will welcome into his tent. Lastly he saw the guests and he ran toward them from the opening of his tent. The Torah makes it clear that Avraham was a person with open eyes, eyes which saw divinity operating in the world and detected the needs of other human beings.
Open heart: What gave Avraham the ability to see God? Why was Avraham so open to helping others? His eyes were open because his heart was open; his capacity to see was an extension of his capacity to feel. Avraham’s lesson is a fundamental and timeless one.
That by opening our hearts to others, we open our own eyes; when we open our own eyes, we see even more deeply the needs of others. The more open we are to seeing others, the more open we are to seeing God. Devarim (Deuteronomy) 15:7, לֹא תְאַמֵּץ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ “You shall not harden your heart”. On the contrary you should open your heart.
Open mind: As his open heart is predicated on his open eyes, so his open mind is an extension of his innate openness. Avraham would not be able to see and feel God’s presence in the world if his mind was not open to the possibility. He would not be able to be open to the opportunity to help others unless his mind was open and compassionate. What is his lesson to us? No less than that we should strive to open our minds. We should open them to people who have different ideas than we do, who have different worldviews, different religious or political views. Iyov (Job) 36:3-4:
אֶשָּׂא דֵעִי, לְמֵרָחוֹק; וּלְפֹעֲלִי, אֶתֵּן-צֶדֶק : כִּי-אָמְנָם, לֹא-שֶׁקֶר מִלָּי; תְּמִים דֵּעוֹת עִמָּךְ.
“I will fetch my knowledge from afar, and will ascribe righteousness to my Maker. For truly my words are not false; one that is upright in mind is with you.”
How do we become upright in mind? By having an open mind.
Open hand: Finally, Avraham takes the openness of his emotions and perceptions and translates them into action: he opens his hand. How open are our own hands to welcoming others, to helping others? Perhaps this is how we should understand the line in Tehilim (Psalms) 145:16: פּוֹתֵחַ אֶת יָדֶךָ וּמַשְׂבִּיעַ לְכָל-חַי רָצוֹן.
“You open up your hands and satisfy every living thing according to its desire”. The line refers to God feeding the hungry. However, does God have hands? Yes. We are God’s hands. When we feed the poor we are operating as God’s open hands.
Open eyes, open hearts, open minds, open hands. During weekday Shacharit (Morning Prayer) there is Mitzvah to wear Tefilin, (leather black boxes held to head and arm with leather straps, which contain the Shema and other texts). Tefilin are worn between our eyes, on our hearts, around our head which contains our mind and around our arm and hand. Perhaps part of the message of Tefilin is that we should look at the world with our open eyes and see the problems that exist in the world. What we see should emotionally affect us–our hearts should be open. Then we need to think with an open mind about what we should do, and then with an open hand, we should do something about it.
Nor is Tefilin the only Mitzvah that uses the open eyes, heart, mind and hand. When we light Shabbat candles we use open eyes, heart, mind and hand. When we give Tzedakah (literally righteousness, but is also the word that is popularly used for charity) we use open eyes, heart, mind and hand. When we do Bikur Cholim (visit the sick) we use open eyes, heart, mind and hand.
On some level, every Mitzvah we perform requires us to open our eyes, hearts, minds and hands. However we should not only perform Mitzvot is this way. We should embody at all times in our life the idea of opening our eyes, heart, mind and hand.