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Thursday, 29 October, 2015 - 1:36 pm

A farmer and his bride are riding home in a wagon pulled by a team of horses, when the older horse stumbles. The farmer says, "That's once." A little further along, the horse stumbles again. The farmer says, "That's twice." When the old horse stumbles a third time, the farmer quietly reaches under his seat, pulls out a shotgun, and shoots the horse dead.

His brand new bride yells, "That was an awful thing to do!"

The farmer says: "That's once."

The beginning of this week’s portion, Vayera, is breathtaking: G-d appears to Abraham, but before He could say what He wants, three men pass by. Abraham interrupts G-d, asking Him to wait while he attends to the needs of his visitors. He then runs to meet them, persuades them to rest by him awhile, prepares food, serves them, and then accompanies them on their way. Only then does the encounter between G-d and Abraham resume.

This is the basis of the principle articulated by the sages: “Greater is hospitality toward guests than welcoming the Divine presence.”

The question is, who taught Abraham this counterintuitive notion that hospitality toward three simple wanderers is superior to welcoming the Divine presence, G-d, master of the entire universe?

This brings us to the next question: What is the logic behind this principle? Why is tending to ordinary men greater than welcoming the Creator of heaven and earth?

Why could Abraham not ask the human guests to wait until he finished his encounter with G-d, rather than ask G-d to wait until he finished taking care of his guests?

What is more, Abraham sat with the guests not for a few minutes, but for a few hours! All this time G-d had to wait for Abraham? Is this not truly disrespectful and perhaps even an act of treason?

The answer to this contains one of the great ideas of Judaism. There is G-d as we meet Him in a vision, an epiphany, a mystical encounter in the depths of the soul. There is G-d as we meet Him in prayer, in study, meditation and silence. But there is also G-d as we see His trace in another person, even a stranger, a passer-by; in Abraham’s case, he saw G-d in three Arab travelers in the heat of the day. Someone else might have given them no further thought, but Abraham ran to meet them and bring them rest, shelter, food and drink. Greater is the person who sees G-d in the face of a stranger than one who sees G-d as G-d in a vision of transcendence, for the Jewish task since the days of Abraham is not to ascend to heaven but to bring heaven down to earth through simple deeds of kindness and hospitality.

In other words, Abraham was not “rejecting” G-d when he asked Him to wait until he had hosted his guests. If G-d is—as Abraham taught the world—the heartbeat that sustains every creature and the entire universe, the energy and inner core of every human being and every reality, then tending to a creation of G-d is not a rejection of G-d but rather an act of embracing His presence in every human heart. If Abraham would have ignored the guests in the presence of G-d he would have deprived us of the majestic core of Judaism: the trace of G-d found in every person, in every moment, in every experience, and in every creation.

Let us go a step deeper: By welcoming the Divine, Abraham would have been connected and close to G-d. By tending to the travelers, Abraham became G-d-like: Granting life and sustenance to humanity. Now he was not only linked to G-d, but he was transformed into a G-dly person.

The great Tzaddik Rabbi Mordechai of Chernobyl was renowned for his erudition and holiness. He had thousands of followers, many of whom he “inherited” after the passing of his saintly father Rebbe Nachum. Once, Rabbi Mordechai was sick. He became so critically ill that he was in a coma for four days and literally hovered between life and death. His Chassidim and followers were in distress. They gathered together, prayed and said Psalms non-stop during his illness. G-d heard their prayers and their Rebbe regained consciousness. Several weeks later he held a great thanksgiving meal for the kindness G-d had shown him. The meal was unusually joyous, replete with song and dance, until one of the older Chassidim, who had taken a few L'chaims, mustered up his courage and approached the Rebbe. He asked him if he would please grace the crowd with a description of what he’d seen in the four days he was “out.”

After a few minutes of silence, the Rebbe cleared his throat, closed his eyes, and began to speak.

"I left my body and felt my soul rising, rising to heaven. I was sure that my time on earth had terminated. But I resisted. I didn't want to die. I cried and asked for mercy but it didn't help. I was brought before the heavenly court and they were about to decide my fate. In desperation I screamed that I wanted to see my holy, departed father, Rabbi Nachum. I knew that if he could intercede for me I might have a chance.

"My request was granted! My father was lowered from the high level of heaven where he was, but when we were finally face to face and I was bursting from joy to see him again after all these years … he didn't recognize me! I pleaded and tried to make him remember… but to no avail. He admitted that he had a son but he didn't believe that I was him! He simply didn't recognize me at all. Finally he asked if perhaps I had done some sin after he left this world and that is the reason he didn't know me. And he disappeared.

For three days, I tried to remember if I had done something wrong, but with no success. I again began weeping and praying and, behold, my father reappeared. He told me that he had also had been researching but had came up with nothing. All he could conclude was perhaps it was something I had done very recently before my illness, and it was therefore inaccessible to him. He asked me if I remembered anything unusual.

"Suddenly something came to my mind, but it certainly wasn't a sin. I told him that I remembered that just before my illness a wealthy Jew who had recently become a pauper came to ask me for a loan of several hundred rubles to get back on his feet, but I’d had to turn him down because I simply didn't have that type of money. Still, I gave him what I could and tried to comfort him as best as possible.

"'Comfort him?' My father asked, 'What did you say?'

"I said a proverb from the wisest of men, King Solomon: For the one who G-d loves, He chastises….”

“‘And what did you mean by that?' My father asked as though he was on to something.

“‘What did I mean?’ I replied, not really understanding what he was getting at. ‘Why, I meant the simple meaning. That he shouldn't worry because sometimes G-d makes people suffer because He loves them. For instance, suffering can sometimes make people kinder, more sensitive, and more compassionate. Sometimes it can clean people of their sins.’

"'Aha!' My father replied. 'Now I know why I didn’t recognize you! I never would have said such a thing! Indeed, here in Heaven we learn that sentence completely differently. Up here we learn it like this: Whoever you love (and we are supposed to love every creature), and you see that he or she is suffering, then you shall chastise G-d." This is what Moses did when he challenged G-d, saying, “Why do you make Your people suffer?” (Exodus 5:22). And G-d listened.’

“‘My son,' my father concluded, 'when it comes to the suffering of others we must protest! We must try to “reprove” G-d and not justify Him.'”

“And I came back to life.”

We too are here to find the G-d within everyone and help them the best we can.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky


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