Be a Giver
Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
Exploring Abraham’s spiritual greatness.
Abraham is on a mission to teach the world about God. Yet if God is an infinite force who encompasses everything and lacks nothing (He doesn't get tired, thirsty, restless or cold), how can He possibly be described?
The answer is found in what motivated God to create the world in the first place. He wasn't lonely. He wasn't bored. And it wasn't a science experiment. Yet God did lack one thing, so to speak. He lacked someone outside of Himself to nurture and bestow kindness upon. Thus the attribute of "giving" is the most essential thing we can say about God.
Abraham's Spiritual Greatness
Abraham emulated God by performing endless acts of kindness. His tent, pitched in the middle of an intercity highway, was open on all four sides so that any traveler was welcome to stop in and enjoy a royal feast.
At the end of the meal, invariably the grateful guests would want to thank Abraham. "It is not I who you should thank," Abraham would reply. "I am only emulating the Almighty Who gives us life, provides our food, and sustains us moment by moment. To Him we should give thanks!"
To those who balked at the idea of thanking God, Abraham offered an alternative: Pay for the meal. Considering the astronomical price tag for a fabulous meal in the middle of a barren desert, Abraham succeeded in inspiring even the skeptics to "give God a try."
Talking To God?
Our parsha begins with Abraham having just circumcised himself at age 99. We'd expect anyone in this condition to be recuperating in bed. Instead, Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent in search of guests.
Yet on this day, no guests are in sight. God made a heat wave to ensure that no travelers were on the road – in order to give Abraham some much-needed rest. The ploy didn't work, however, because for Abraham, the pain of circumcision paled in comparison to the anguish of not doing kindness for others. So God had to send guests in order to spare Abraham pain!
"God appeared to Abraham as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men passing by. Abraham ran to greet them and said, 'Please come in! I'll bring some water, and you can wash up and rest..' Abraham hurried to Sarah's tent and said, 'Quickly make three cakes.' Abraham ran to his cattle, selected a choice one, and gave it to his son who rushed to prepare it..." (Genesis 18:1-8)
There's a lot to talk about here: How Abraham treats the guests royally and serves the finest foods, how he involves his family in the mitzvah, and his incredible zeal in making it all happen.
But something about this sequence should be bothering us: At the beginning of the story, God appears to Abraham, and next thing you know, Abraham leaves to attend to three strangers. Imagine you're in the middle of speaking to the President of the United States. Would you ever say, "Hold on, there's some strangers walking by. I'll get back to you later!" So what made Abraham think leaving God was the right thing to do?
The answer is that there is an experience even greater than talking to God. To be like God. Human beings are created in the image of God. God is a giver. Thus, giving is our greatest form of spiritual expression.
The Need To Give
Abraham was a wealthy man who had many servants. If so, why didn't he simply order his staff to serve the meal?
We mistakenly think that "giving" is a drain on our time and resources. On the contrary, giving energizes and enlivens us. At the beginning of our parsha, Abraham is in such pain from the circumcision that he is only able to sit outside his tent. But when the guests pass by, he runs to greet them! And his energy is infectious: His wife and children also hurry to perform the mitzvah.
Imagine being born into great wealth and given a monthly allowance of $100,000. You never have to work a day in your life. You can play golf, go shopping, travel, lie on the beach. Everything easy, everything handed to you. The good life!
Actually, it's not. Because after awhile, you'd get tired of "taking" all the time. A nagging voice persists: What is my contribution to this world?
The Talmud says there are four individuals who are "considered dead even while they're alive." The common denominator of these people is that (due to circumstantial limitations) they are unable to give.
Of course, the reason to treat others kindly is because we care about them. But just as crucial is what giving does for me. The act of "giving" makes me more sensitive, caring, compassionate and… God-like.
The Basis of it All
Giving is the foundation of any relationship. When two people focus on giving to one another, the relationship flows in two directions – connecting, linking and forging the bond. But when the focus is on taking, the dynamic pulls in opposite directions – creating strain and tension.
This is illustrated later in our parsha with the story of Sodom. What was the terrible sin that caused the city to be destroyed? The Talmud (Sanhedrin 109) says that in Sodom it was illegal to welcome strangers. One Sodomite woman who gave bread to a poor person was punished by publicly being covered with honey and devoured by bees.
Geographically, Sodom is located next to the Dead Sea. In Israel, there are two seas connected by the Jordan River: the Sea of Galilee in the north, and the Dead Sea in the south. Since the Dead Sea is the lowest point on planet Earth (396 meters below sea level), water flows in, but doesn't flow out. This inability to "give" is why it's called the Dead Sea. Likewise, any society that eschews giving is on a path to self-destruction.
Making It Real
Practically speaking, how does one become a "giver?" The simple answer: Start giving. Some people say, "I can only give to someone I love." This is incorrect. The Hebrew word for "give" – hav, is the same root as ahava, which means "love." Giving is what leads to love. When I give, I invest a part of myself, making you more precious to me. This is why parents love their children most of all; it is their greatest investment.
A few suggestions: Visit some patients at the local hospital. Invite your friends to a Shabbat dinner. Volunteer to serve meals at a homeless shelter. Do the dishes at home even when it's not your turn. Emulate God and be a giver. Do it with zeal. Do it as if your life depends on it.