Jewish Character Traits.
Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
How Abraham’s acts of kindness teach us practical lessons for life.
"And God appeared unto him" are the opening words of Parashas Vayeira. Interestingly enough, although in context it is clear that God appeared to Abraham, the Torah does not explicitly name him. The last verse in Parashas Lech Lecha indicates that Abraham had just circumcised himself and the members of his household, so we know that Hashem came to visit him during his recuperation.
Some commentators wonder why the text omits the Patriarch's name. Why does he remain anonymous? Surely, his many merits rendered him worthy of the Divine visitation. There is a profound teaching behind this omission. The true greatness of Abraham (whose name means "father of all nations") could be found not only in his incredible chesed - loving-kindness, his all-encompassing faith in God, his ability to sacrifice ... - but also in his genuine humility. "Behold, I am but dust and ashes," he proclaimed. He totally negated himself, divested himself of his ego, and became a complete spiritual being. It was this humility that enabled him to connect with God.
All of us who would strive to have a relationship with the Almighty should attempt to emulate Abraham's example. For our generation, this should not be too difficult, for if anyone should realize how fragile life is - how, in an instant, all our possessions can be wiped out and our very lives forfeit - it is we. On a universal as well as on a personal level, we live with uncertainty. It seems that no place is secure. Terrorism, economic instability, and fear of illness loom over us like sinister shadows. Certainly we can all echo the words of the Patriarch: "I am but dust and ashes ...." Our only hope is to return to God and proclaim with the psalmist, "I raise my eyes upon the mountains, whence will come my help? My help is from Hashem ...."
CHARACTER TRAITS THAT DISTINGUISH A JEW
Chesed - Loving-kindness
Our Sages teach that certain traits distinguish us and indicate that we are descendants of the Patriarch Abraham. One of those traits is chesed. In addition to chesed, yet another trait is associated with loving-kindness: rachamim (compassion). But there is no redundancy in Hebrew; thus, each of these terms has its own distinct component of loving-kindness, which we will discover in this parashah.
The parashah opens with Abraham, at the age of 99, recovering from his circumcision. For any adult to undergo such a procedure is no simple matter, but for a man of 99 it is a painful ordeal. This narrative takes place on the third day following the bris, which we know is the most difficult. Yet Abraham sat in the doorway of his tent, looking for guests so that he could perform the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim (hospitality). Therefore, Hashem compassionately caused the sun to shine in its full intensity to deter travelers so that Abraham should not be disturbed by wayfarers.
But Abraham's heart was bursting with chesed. He had a need to give, and he suffered more at the thought of not being able to welcome guests than from the physical pain of his circumcision. He anxiously sat at the threshold of his tent, searching for passersby to invite into his home. When the Almighty saw Abraham's yearning to reach out, to be of service to others, He sent him three angels in the guise of nomads. Although ailing, Abraham was so overjoyed to see them that he actually ran to greet them, offered them hospitality, and prepared a lavish meal for them.
Herein is to be found the difference between the traits of chesed and rachamim. The word rachamim is derived from the word rechem, which means "womb." Even as a mother has compassion on the child growing within her, so, too, the individual with rachmanus has his/her compassion aroused by a certain need. But chesed operates independent of need. It throbs in the heart and demands expression. The baal chesed - he who personifies chesed - desires to give because that is his raison d'etre. Doing so lends meaning to his life; that is the spiritual gene that our forefather Abraham transmitted to us: the desire to give, to make the world a better place by extending a helping hand.
From whom did our forefather Abraham learn this? From the Almighty Himself. It was on pillars of chesed that God built this world. Prior to the Creation, there was no life in need of God's compassion, but it is God's "desire," so to speak, to do chesed. Therefore He created the world in order to dispense His loving-kindness. We have a mandate to emulate the Almighty God: to live our lives in such a way that we become gomlei chasadim, men and women who impart loving-kindness to others.
Our bobbe, Rebbetzin Miriam Jungreis, a"h, was a true embodiment of this trait of chesed. Her life was one of constant giving, and even in her last days, as illness racked her frail body, she continued to organize chesed programs for needy Russian immigrants, explaining that if she could not offer help to others, her life had no meaning.
Bikur Cholim - Visiting the Sick
Our Sages impart yet another reason why Abraham's name is omitted as God makes His compassionate visit in the opening verse of this parashah. Had the Torah identified the Patriarch by name, we might have concluded that God visits only the righteous. To the Almighty, however, every human being is holy and the Shechinah hovers over every sickbed. Therefore, the lesson that we should glean from this is that we, too, must visit the sick and express concern, not only for friends, family, and prominent individuals, but to all those in need.
Acting upon this teaching, Bikur Cholim organizations (for visiting the sick) have been important to Jewish life throughout the centuries. Timeless lessons are to be found in the very words "Bikur Cholim," as well. The Hebrew word bikur (to visit) is related to bikores (investigation), to teach that when we visit someone who is ill, we should investigate and determine how we may best help the patient and family members. The word bikur is also related to boker (morning), reminding us to bring cheer and sunshine with our very presence and not to depart from the sickroom without pronouncing a prayer for good health. The importance of visiting the sick is just one of the concepts of chesed that we can learn from this parashah.
Welcoming Guests - Lessons For Life
Although the Torah had not as yet been given, Abraham felt God's word in every fiber of his being. The Torah describes in great detail the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim - welcoming guests.
When we open our home to guests, we transform it from a residence into a spiritual abode in which we share God's blessings. Our home is not simply a residence in which we eat, drink, sleep, and relax, it is also a place in which we welcome guests, impart joy to others, and help all those in need.
We can learn many lessons for life from Parashas Vayeira and can readily apply them to our own situations. Among these lessons are:
(1) The Chuppah - Abraham's Model for the Jewish Home: Abraham's tent was open on all sides so that it might be accessible from every direction. To this very day, in remembrance of the Tent of Abraham, the chuppah (marriage canopy) is open on all sides, in the hope that the home of the young couple will replicate Abraham's tent, in which guests were lovingly provided with hospitality. This teaching applies to all guests, for even though Abraham thought that his guests were simple desert nomads, he welcomed them with great honor.
(2) Enthusiasm: Abraham ran to greet his guests and he ran to serve them, teaching us that when we perform a mitzvah, it should be done with alacrity and joyous enthusiasm. It is not only our performance of mitzvos that is critical, but the manner in which we do so: grudgingly or happily, angrily or kindly, warmly or coldly.
(3) Attend to the needs of guests: Abraham had many servants, but he and his wife Sarah personally attended to the needs of their guests. Thus we learn that it is proper to honor visitors by serving them.
(4) Say little, but do much: Abraham invited his guests to partake of "a little water" and "a morsel of bread," but then proceeded to prepare a lavish banquet, teaching us that a host should say little - so as not to make his guests feel beholden - but deliver much.
(5) Thank God: Abraham did not allow his guests to express thanks to him, but instructed them to thank God. He impressed upon them that all that he possessed and shared was from Hashem. From this we learn that when we entertain guests, we must also consider their spiritual needs and make them aware of God's presence and bounty.
(6) Escort guests: It is written that when the angels took their leave from the tent of Abraham, he "walked with them to escort them" - reminding us that not only is it a mitzvah to invite guests to our homes, but when they depart, we should accompany them (for example, if we live in an apartment building, we should escort them to the elevator; if we have a private home, we should walk them to the door). To this very day, we can recall our grandparents, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Abraham Jungreis, of blessed memory, walking us to our car and waving until we turned the corner. This same tradition was continued by our beloved father, Rabbi Meshulem Jungreis, z"tl, and lives on today in our mother, Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis a"h.
(7) According to the effort is the reward: The reward is commensurate with the pain: Although Abraham was suffering intensely due to his circumcision, he transcended that pain so that he might perform the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, and experienced great joy in doing so. We learn that the greater the effort and mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) that the mitzvah entails, the greater the satisfaction in doing it. Today, we go to synagogue despite distance and inclement weather; we study Torah despite our fatigue; we give tzedakah, despite the fact that we are on a tight budget, and we grow spiritually as we perform each mitzvah.
(8) Hospitality: Hachnasas orchim may be proffered on many different levels. People are lonely. They yearn for warmth and family. People are perplexed; they need guidance. They are spiritually deprived and are yearning for something to hold on to, something to believe in. The hospitality that Abraham extended encompassed all this. By following in his footsteps, we can bring people closer to God. A most auspicious time to extend such hospitality is Shabbos, for the spiritual power of the day is all encompassing and will leave a life-transforming impression on our guests.
(9) Responsibilities of guests: "They [the angels] asked Abraham, 'Where is Sarah, your wife?'"  Rashi explains that the angels knew where Sarah was. Nevertheless, they inquired about her whereabouts to praise her to Abraham. Their question called his attention to her fine character traits and modesty, thus making her even more beloved to her husband.
The Torah teaches that we should always try to enhance the shalom bayis (peace and harmony) of those whom we visit by praising one spouse to the other. Similarly, the most meaningful gift that we can give parents and grandparents is to notice something praiseworthy about their children. Such expressions of kindness are the most meaningful gift that visitors can impart.
(10) Praying for others: "He who prays on behalf of another when he himself needs that very same thing is answered first." God granted Sarah a son after Abraham prayed for Abimelech to be blessed with children.
Find someone who has the same problems as you and pray for that person, and God will hearken to your prayers. Admittedly, this is not an easy challenge, for we tend to be consumed by our own needs. We see only our own requirements, but if we can transcend ourselves, if we identify with the pain of our neighbors and sincerely beseech God on their behalf, that is our best reason to hope that God will answer us.
- Genesis 18:1.
- Ibid. 18:27.
- Psalms 121:1-2.
- Psalms 89:3.
- Genesis 18:4-5.
- Ibid. 18:16.
- Ibid. 18:9.
- Ibid. 20:17, Rashi to ibid. 21:1.