Torah Thoughts on Parashat Vayera 5782
Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
At the beginning of Parashat Vayera we read, “The LORD appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it pleases you, do not go on past your servant.” (Genesis 18:1).
The three strangers of the text (angels?) will announce to Abraham that he and his wife Sarah will have a child, something considered almost miraculous, considering Abraham and Sarah’s advanced age. However, before the three men can even say a word, Abraham welcomes them, makes them feel comfortable and provides food for them (see Genesis 18:3-8). This is considered the paradigm of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming the strangers/visitors, highly regarded by the rabbis.
The Talmud (Baba Metzia 86b) explains that the three men arrived on the third day after Abraham had his circumcision, the day that many consider the most painful one after a circumcision is performed. In addition, the visit happened during the hottest time of the day, when pain and discomfort are felt most. Nevertheless, Abraham never doubted about welcoming the visitors. In fact, as soon as he saw them, “he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground” (Genesis 18:1).
We learn from this episode that, not only Abraham was willing to fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming the strangers/visitors, but he was actually ready to do it even when he didn’t feel his best. Notice the paradox here: Abraham made everything to make his guests feel comfortable, at the same moment when he himself was feeling uncomfortable. Not feeling well didn’t prevent Abraham from trying to make others feel well!
Some would argue that the moral to learn here is that the Torah demands you to put the needs of others above your own needs. However, I don’t think that is the right teaching. Judaism always teaches us to take care of yourself and never neglect your health. The lesson of this story, in my opinion, is that you don’t have to wait to feel excellent before helping those who don’t feel well or wait to become rich before helping those in need or wait to be very happy before trying to cheer up someone who is sad.
You can help others even when you are not at your best. In fact, we will probably never be “at our ideal best.” We will always be missing something, aching from something, or wishing for more financial, academic, career, or social success. That should, however, not be an obstacle for exercising our ability (or our mitzvah!) to help others in many possible ways. Most of the time, helping others will end up helping ourselves in unexpected ways, at least warming our hearts, and hence making us feel better.
Let’s do like Abraham, who was ready to help others, even when he himself was in need of something else!