I wrote this last year when I was going through a tough week, and I was hearing from so many others that they too were going through a lot of difficulties. It makes us realize how each of us are our own complex universes and each universe is affected by the other. It’s why spreading joy and light is such an important part of life, as each person has the ability to ignite the other person’s light and positive outlook, or God forbid, diminish it. As it is written in the holy Zohar: “If, from down here below, a person shows a luminous countenance, in the same way does a luminous Countenance shine upon him from Above, and if he is melancholy, strict justice is mirrored back at him. In this spirit it is written, ‘Serve G‑d with joy’: the joy of a mortal elicits from another Supernal joy. Similarly, the world below, being thus crowned, draws down [blessings upon itself] from Above.”1 In this parashah, we see Avraham’s focus on serving Hashem with joy and being of service to others for this very reason.
וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ ה’ בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם. וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃
Hashem appeared to [Abraham] in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the hottest part of the day. [Abraham] lifted his eyes and saw: Behold! Three men were standing over him. He perceived, so he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground.2
Just this first pasuk (verse) from this parashah of Vayeira has so much packed in it. As is the general practice when learning, we begin with Rashi who explains that this is where we learn that Hashem visits the sick, because Avraham has just had his brit milah (circumcision) at the old age of ninety-nine and these men, as we learn, are emissaries of God. This is spelled out in the Oral Torah of the Talmud in Sotah page 14a3 where R’ Chama ben Chanina says, “It was the third day since Avraham’s brit milah, and Hashem came to inquire on his welfare, as the verse indicates his sitting with his still-healing injury.” The verse mentions the heat of the day not to tell us the temperature for its own sake, but rather to let us know that the heat was meant to give Avraham a chance to rest, as visitors would be discouraged to travel during such heat. But then Hashem saw that Avraham was saddened that no visitors arrived, so Hashem sent three angels disguised as mortals: “He lifted his eyes and beheld three men.”4 As we learn in Rashi and Talmud Bava Metzia, the angels were none other than Michael, Raphael, and Gavriel.5 The wording of brought angels, instead of he sent angels is meant to show that Hashem would have sent angels regardless, but in this instance He brought them in the form of humans because Avraham wanted visitors.6 And so He brought Michael to bring good news to Sarah that she would give birth to a son in a year’s time. He brought Raphael to heal Avraham and Gavriel to overturn Sodom.
We learn in the Talmud that, “greater than receiving the Shechinah (Divine Presence) is the mitzvah of receiving guests.”7 I guess it’s easy for Avraham to say that, since he received both, but all jokes aside, from the perspective of us all being a part of Hashem, it is one and the same– with each new person we welcome in, we welcome in a new aspect of Hashem.
Rambam (Miamonides) echoes the same teaching, but learns it from the words in the pasuk, “He saw, behold, three men.” Avraham was in communion with Hashem in his Divine oneness, yet he somehow still was able to see and worry about passersby/guests. Could you imagine the level of holiness you would have to be on to be able to have an opportunity to communicate directly with Hashem, and you stop to worry about someone passing by? In Chassidut, there is a focus on nullifying the self (transcendence of self), as the Mishna states in Avot: “Nullify your will before His will..” but never that over losing sense of the other, as that is Hashem’s will. Rambam proves this from the actions of Avraham, that even when he was in the Infinite, all-consuming Light of Hashem, he still worried about the hunger of a passerby. So we see from Avraham what we call while studying Gemara a kal vachomer: that if Avraham worried about receiving guests while in the presence of Hashem, how much more so is the importance of receiving guests when not yet in the space of receiving the Shechinah.
Of course there is no place where Hashem is not present, but as R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch teaches, When a person offers himself completely to Hashem, as Avraham did, he is worthy of actually seeing the Shechinah. This was later seen with Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, who was said to have actually seen Hashem’s face. Of course this doesn’t mean literally– all are just attributes articulated for our own relation to something beyond us– but it does illustrate the level one can reach when they truly nullify themselves to Oneness and the entire purpose of creation.
The Chatam Sofer says that despite his pain of brit milah Avraham was saddened by not being able to do the mitzvah of welcoming in guests, and, in this saddened state, he couldn’t receive prophecy. As it says in Talmud Shabbat, the Shechinah dwells only in an atmosphere of joyous performance of the mitzvot (commandments)8 But the moment Avraham beheld the passersby, he immediately went into a revealed state of joy, and it was that state of joy that enabled him to receive the prophecy (the Shechinah). The emphasis on he saw (וַיֵּרָ֤א) shows that he was aware, but he took that further by running to perform the mitzvah, despite being in a massive amount of pain from his brit milah. While a lesser person would see but be distracted by Hashem’s presence and pause in that mitzvah, Avraham did the opposite– he ran to do the mitzvah. So the pasuk continues, “He perceived, so he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground.” Avraham’s bowing was not to them and their honor, but in gratitude to Hashem for not only gifting him with his Shechinah but also with the opportunity to perform a mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (hospitality, הכנסת אורחים). 9 Rashi points out that previously Avraham would bow for the Shechinah only, but now that he had experienced a brit milah, he could receive his guests and receive the Shechinah simultaneously.10
The Shechinah’s appearance, when Hashem finds favor in our eyes, happens again in parashat Vayikra when the Mishkan is erected in the desert: “And they went out and blessed the nation, and the glory of Hashem appeared to them.”11 The Shechinah didn’t appear to issue any commands, but simply to honor B’nei Yisrael, just like with Avraham here and with Yaakov in response to his good deeds in parashat Vayetze, “And the angels of Hashem met him.”12
There are two acts that we actually complete for Hashem. One is giving to the poor. As we learn in future parshiot: Hashem’s love for the poor is evidenced by their Temple sacrifices being valued just as much, no matter how small they may be. So, you might ask why the poor are not taken care of in this world if Hashem loves them in this way. The reason is that it is our job to partner with Hashem and fulfill the mitzvah of making sure they are taken care of. It’s similar with the brit milah: one can ask, if it is a sign of our covenant with Hashem, then why would we not be born with it? The answer is because it is our job to take a physical action and create the covenant, a partnership literally seen on the body, that we have taken part in and take personal action towards. And so to take this covenant to spread joy and light, it is important that one’s tzedakah manifests in more ways than just money.
The power of tzedakah is that you literally give life to someone: they go from a lowly state of hopelessness and darkness to a state of feeling life and hope and light again. I saw this the other day when I was leaving minyan for Shacharit and a woman sitting at the exit asked for money. I told her I just gave to someone inside, so I am not sure, but I will check, then I opened my wallet and saw a five and gave it to her, and she lit up and asked if I was married and started to shower me with all sorts of blessings, one after the other, all excited. It’s pretty incredible how even a small amount can make someone re-energized for life. This pertains to money with the poor, but it goes well beyond that. You see it with visiting the sick and with welcoming people into your home. I’m not the type to invite myself to meals on Shabbat and after I got divorced I only got invitations once in a while, so I would find myself eating alone. For a while that put me into a depressive state, feeling like no one cared. If a person already feels down, it’s sometimes just one or two other things that happen that could push a person further into depression, but a lot of that is also about perspective. I flipped the script and got a bit more involved, inviting others over, so that if they were in a similar boat, they wouldn’t feel as I was feeling. And on the Shabbat nights when I was solo, I switched the perspective of feeling bad for myself to taking the opportunity as one when I could get some solo and sacred time with just me. Singing and saying the Shabbat brachot (blessings) without anyone around could be a very powerful moment, and the time after to relax and read or learn was also precious.
The importance of welcoming people into their homes is seen by Avraham and Sarah. My son, who’s in the fifth grade, wrote a dvar Torah at school last week, and one line of it really jumped out at me. He wrote, “I think the character that we learn from this parashah is respect and trustworthiness. Because when Avraham and Sarah see people walk by their tent, they trust them in their house. And the lesson is to respect others and when you help others they will help you back.”13 I was blown away by him writing/seeing this, because there is so much truth to it. It’s not even just that maybe the person you welcome will welcome you or “pay” you back somehow. It is that by welcoming and giving to them, you are giving to yourself. Community and love is something that is created when it is given to, and what one gets back from community and love is priceless.
The same is true when fulfilling the mitzvah of visiting the sick. When someone is very sick physically, it often takes a toll on them, making them “sick” in whatever ways mentally. Often they feel like there is no hope, which can put a person into a dark space in their mind, which can have massive effects on their physical well-being. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson suggests that with positive emotion (joy, gratitude, calm, hope, compassion etc.), “our vision literally expands, allowing us to make creative connections, seeing our oneness with others, and facing our problems with clear eyes.”
My mom passed away two years ago after years battling cancer. I recall the doctors would say that you would never know how serious it is from looking at her, and that it was a miracle that she was still with us, and that it was because of her keeping a positive outlook. The patients that gave up on life and fell into darkness were the ones that didn’t get another few years with their families and friends; they succumbed to their sickness and unfortunately it took them far too soon. As hard as it is to have lost her, I am so thankful that my mom’s outlook remained hopeful and optimistic, and that she stayed in a mental space above her physical hardships, because it afforded us a few more years of memories of her with me and most importantly with my kids.
I saw the power of taking people to a space of pure joy when we did hafatza (spreading joy) around Los Angeles in the Na Nach bus. It’s a mini school bus colorfully painted with Na Nach Nachma Nachman Meuman (נַ נַח נַחְמָ נַחְמָן מאומן) in Hebrew written all over it. (click here to view videos;) My friend Shaya picked me and my kids up, then our friends/family the Ben Yehuda’s and drove towards Hollywood with his three very big speakers blasting Na Nach EDM, which hits in a way that it’s hard not to smile or dance. Everytime we hit a red light, with his wife in another car blocking so no one could drive toward us, the kids ran out and started dancing to the music, doing flips. You could see everyone’s eyes light up and smiles get big. The joy is hard to describe but it’s palpable. As we drove down Melrose Avenue with music blasting, a biker gang started to drive and do tricks to the left of us. When we were slow enough side by side, they started giving dap one by one to each of the kids in their oversized Na Nach kippas. It was an incredible feeling of unity between two disparate folks (a biker gang and some chassidic Jewish kids). The last stop on the journey was to a kid who is sick in La Brea. As he was outside swinging on a tire with his mom by his side, we pulled up with an inspiring song, and the kids formed a circle, holding hands, going toward and away and back toward each other in circles. The kid kept smiling and, for a moment, felt what we had felt– the connection, the joy, the light. And that’s what visiting the sick is about, increasing their positivity. Of course, on a less physical level than this child and people in the hospital, sometimes it feels as though everyone I know is sick in some ways, as physical is tied to mental and emotions. And so many of us struggle with mental and emotional health. That’s why I see this hafatza journey as visiting the sick in some way, as it is something we all need.
In Likutey Moharan, R’ Nachman teaches that the beginning of the devotion of charity, and indeed all devotions and acts of repentance in the service of Hashem are difficult and demanding. Two parshiot ago, in Noach, we learned from Rashi about the verse “These offspring of Noach..”14 that the tzaddik’s primary progeny are his mitzvot. R’ Nachman applies this to our every devotion in the service of Hashem. He compares it to a birth, in which the mother cries out in labor-pangs and contractions in order to birth her progeny, which is especially true for a first-time birth.15 As it’s written, “in anguish, like she that gives birth for the first time.”16 As Irma Thomas sang in 67′, “Good Things Don’t Come Easy”17
There is an adage, If you see that your livelihood is limited, then give tzedakah. It applies to lack in general– if you feel like you aren’t receiving, focus on giving, and that will open up the gates for receiving. Our work is to break our hesitancy toward bringing people in. Even if not seen by oneself as cruelty, it’s born of cruelty, and it is something every person has to break through to get towards compassion. This is so even in the case of someone who is generous of heart and does give charity, as HaRav Elazar Mordechai Kenig says – “Everyone has a place where they say to themselves, ‘until here and no more’ – this point of “cruelty” is what each of us must exert ourselves to break.
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Notes & Sources
- Zohar II , 184b
- Vayeira 18:1,2
- Talmud Sotah 14a
- Vayeira 18:2
- Bava Metzia 86b
- Mishmeret HaKodesh
- Shabbat 127a
- Talmud Shabbat 30b
- Torat Moshe 7a, ד״ה וירא
- Rashi 17:3, ד״ה ויפל
- Vayikra 9:23
- Vayetze 32:2
- Dovi Safar, Dvar, Parshat Lech-Lecha
- Genesis 6:9
- Likutey Moharan II 4:2
- Jeremiah 4:31
- Good Things Don’t Come Easy by Irma Thomas