Vayeira 5781: One Year Later
Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
GOOD MORNING! I hope this week’s column finds you and your loved ones well and in good physical and emotional health.
As I am sure you know, many countries in Europe are now seeing a second wave of coronavirus infections and are once again moving toward severe shut downs. Here too, in the United States, there has been a sharp rise in coronavirus cases in over forty states and the medical establishment is bracing itself at the specter of a difficult few months or perhaps longer.
Even though the overwhelming majority of the population do not find their lives endangered by COVID-19, getting physically sick is both debilitating and very trying. Perhaps as bad is the forced isolation of those who are ill as well as those that have been exposed. The emotional stress can be overwhelming.
Of course, the ever evolving information from both the CDC and other health organizations fails to inspire confidence in their knowledge and understanding of this dreaded virus – which of course reminds me of the following joke:
Mr. Jones, who is feeling very sick, goes to see Dr. Smith. Unfortunately, the doctor cannot figure out what is wrong with him. Dr. Smith runs a whole variety of tests on him and asks him to come back on the following day to discuss the results. The next day, Mr. Jones returns to the office. Dr. Smith asks his patient, “Which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?” He replies, “Give me the good news.”
Dr. Smith tells him, “You're about to have a disease named after you.”
Mr. Jones, who by now also intuited the bad news, is more than a little a little disheartened. “Okay, this is what I want you to do,” says the doctor. “Go home and take a hot bath. Then throw open all the windows and stand in the draft.”
“But I'll get pneumonia!” protests Mr. Jones. ”I know,” responds the doctor, “That I can cure.”
One of the important elements of coping with disease is how one emotionally deals with it. Some patients do this well, some less so. This is where the rest of us can be helpful. It is a mitzvah to visit the sick, to check in on them, and look after them. Even in these challenging times of quarantine and isolation we must make every effort to reach out and inquire as to the wellbeing of others. This can be achieved by calling or having a “virtual” visit.
Most people are surprised to learn that the first in the Torah to visit someone who was sick was the Almighty Himself! In the opening to this week’s Torah portion we find the following verse:
“God appeared to him (Abraham) in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1).
Jewish tradition recalls that this was on the third day following Abraham’s circumcision – when he was in the most severe pain – God came to pay him a visit to inquire as to his welfare (Talmud Bava Metzia 86b).
According to that passage in the Talmud, even though Abraham was in pain he was sitting at the entrance of his tent to see if there were any wayfarers in the area that he might invite inside. Abraham’s home was well known as a “rest stop” whereby travelers could stop for a respite and enjoy a hearty meal. But because he was in pain the Almighty caused it to be a blazing hot day – so that people wouldn’t be out and about and Abraham wouldn’t have to trouble himself to care for them.
When the Almighty saw that Abraham was deeply distressed that there was no one on the roads He sent three angels in the guise of traveling merchants so that Abraham would have guests upon which to lavish attention. According to the Talmud (quoted ad loc by Rashi), each one of these angels had a special mission to fulfill.
The first angel, Michael, came to inform Abraham’s wife Sarah that she would give birth to a son within a year’s time. The second angel, Raphael, was sent to heal Abraham. Finally, the third angel, Gabriel, was there to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When Abraham spotted these three “men” on the road he ran out to greet them and urged them to come in to his home to wash, rest in the shade of his tree, and enjoy a nourishing and soul restoring meal. According to Jewish tradition, Abraham left the presence of the Almighty who had come to visit him and ran out to meet the wayfarers and invite them into his home.
One opinion in the Talmud is that Abraham made a rather astonishing statement to the Almighty who was there to visit him when he spied the three wayfarers outside on the road; “Please my master, if I have found favor in your eyes, wait for me while I go and attend to my guests.” In other words, Abraham is “blowing off” God Himself to go and attend to his guests!
Based on this the Talmud makes a very bold statement: “From here we see that receiving guests into one’s home is greater than being in the presence of God.”
This seems rather difficult to comprehend. While it’s true that it is a big mitzvah to invite guests into one’s home, we must also remember that the ultimate purpose of mitzvos is to serve the Almighty and develop a relationship with Him (see Ramchal Derech Hashem 1:2). If one is sitting in the presence of the Almighty, how can it possibly be proper to leave His presence to attend to guests?
The answer lies in the understanding that the highest level of serving the Almighty is to become God-like. This is based on the teaching (Talmud Shabbos 133b) “One should strive to emulate the Almighty; just as He is merciful so you shall be merciful, just as He is compassionate so too you should be compassionate.
Abraham innately understood that the highest level of service is becoming God-like, which is even more important than being in His presence. When God created the world He constricted his own presence, as it were, in order to allow man to exist in His space. Hence the ultimate emulation of the Almighty is to invite others into our space (our homes) and make them feel like it is their own. That is why he left the presence of the Almighty to attend to his own guests.
One person who cared most deeply about others, and particularly observed the mitzvah of welcoming guests into his home, was our beloved mentor and teacher Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory. I have previously written with regard to the enormous focus and attention that he (and his family) had on fulfilling this crucial obligation of inviting others into one’s home and making them feel as if it was their own.
It is rather shocking to realize that his first “Yahrzeit” (lit. “time of year” in Yiddish – this refers to the anniversary of a loved one’s death) is already upon us. The good rabbi passed away on the 18th of Cheshvan, but the custom is that the first Yahrzeit is always observed on the anniversary of the burial which was the 21st of Cheshvan – corresponding this year to Sunday, November 8.
I enjoin all who benefit from this Shabbat Shalom Fax of Life – an amazing project that the good rabbi founded almost thirty years ago – to dedicate this day to doing for others as a remembrance of his holy soul. His Hebrew name is R’ Kalman Moshe ben Reuven Avigdor.
In this week’s Torah reading we find two amazing mitzvot – God visits the sick and Abraham welcomes others into his home. While we may be limited in these times of isolation in the latter, we can certainly act in a God-like manner and fulfill the former. As a merit for for Rabbi Packouz’ soul, make a special effort to reach out to others who are either physically or emotionally compromised by disease and lift their spirits.
As many of you know, I spent almost every Wednesday morning for 27 years getting to know him. There is not a single thing in the world that I can think of that would make him prouder. May the Almighty guard his pure and lofty soul in His sheltering embrace, and may the good rabbi’s memory be a blessing for us all. Amen.
Vayeira, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Abraham, on the third day after his brit mila, sits outside his tent looking for guests to extend his hospitality. While talking with the Almighty, he sees three visitors (actually angels of the Almighty). Avraham interrupts his conversation with the Almighty to invite them to a meal. One angel informs him that in a year's time his wife, Sarah, will give birth to a son, Yitzhak (Isaac).
God tells Avraham that He is going to destroy Sodom because of its absolute evil (the city is the source of the word sodomy). Avraham argues with God to spare Sodom if there can be found ten righteous people in Sodom. Avraham loses for the lack of a quorum. Lot (Avraham's nephew) escapes the destruction with his two daughters.
Other incidents: Avimelech, King of the Philistines, wants to marry Sarah (Avraham's wife), the birth of Yitzhak, the eviction of Hagar (Avraham's concubine) and Ishmael. Avimelech and Avraham make a treaty at Beersheva. Avraham is commanded to take up his son, Isaac, as an offering "on one of the mountains" (Akeidat Yitzhak). Lastly, the announcement of the birth of Rivka (Rebecca), the future wife of Yitzhak.
Do you want to know the reward for listening to the command of the Almighty? This is what the Almighty told Avraham: "...I shall surely bless you and greatly increase your descendants like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall inherit the gate of its enemy. And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring, because you have listened to My voice."
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Miami 5:17 - Cape Town 7:01 - Guatemala 5:26
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Do not cry because they are past – smile, because they once were!
— Ludwig Jacobowski