Parashat Vayera: From Bringing People Under the Wings of the Shekhina to Hospitality

  • Dr. Tziporah Lifshitz
Dedicated in memory of Rabbi Jack Sable z”l and
Ambassador Yehuda Avner z”l
By Debbi and David Sable
The unit of Bereishit dealing with the life of Avraham, from Lekh Lekha to Chayei Sara, describes the building of Avraham's own family and his ties and dealings with the region's rulers and dignitaries, near and far. Bereishit Rabba adds to this another level which characterizes the daily encounter between Avraham and his environment. The Midrash outlines this encounter in two dimensions: one dimension is Avraham's work of spreading the belief in one God, and the second is that of his acts of hospitality. In this shiur, we will see how the Midrash describes and integrates these two dimensions.
The first two references in Bereishit Rabba to this dimension relate to the verses that describe Avraham Avinu's first steps in Eretz Israel:
And Avram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother's son, and all their substance that they had gathered, and the souls that they had gotten in Charan; and they went forth to go into the land of Canaan; and into the land of Canaan they came.
And Avram passed through the land to the place of Shekhem, to the terebinth of Moreh…
And he removed from there to the mountain on the east of Beit El, and pitched his tent, having Beit El on the west, and Ai on the east; and he built there an altar to the Lord, and called upon the name of the Lord. (Bereishit 12:5-8)
The Midrash states:
"And the souls that they had gotten [literally, made] in Charan" (Bereishit 12:5). Rabbi Elazar ben Zimra said: Even if all human beings were to join to create even one mosquito, they could not give it a soul. And you say: "And the souls that they had made." Rather, these are the people that they converted. If so that they converted them, why does it say: "that they had made"? In order to teach you that anyone who draws an idol worshipper close and converts him, it is as if he created him. But let it say: that he had made. Why is it stated: "that they had made"? Rav Huna said: Avraham would convert the men, and Sara would convert the women. (Bereishit Rabba 39, 14, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 378-379)
"And he called upon the name of the Lord" (Bereishit 12:8)… He began to convert people.[1] (Bereishit Rabba 39, 16, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 381)
Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra, one of the last Tannaim and a relative by marriage of Rabbi Yehuda Ha-nasi (the compiler of the Mishna),[2] points to the joint activity of Avraham and Sara even before they arrive in Eretz Israel. In the second derasha, the anonymous darshan does not content himself with understanding Avraham's calling upon the name of God as a sign of Avraham's personal attachment to God; rather he expounds it in reference to the resumption of Avraham's conversion work in the land of Canaan, after it had ceased during the period of his travels.[3] Avraham calls upon the name of the Lord in the earshot of all. 
The third reference is found in a derasha of the Amora Rabbi Yitzchak that relates to the words of Malki Tzedek, the king of Shalem, who greets Avraham when he returned from his victory over the four kings:
Rabbi Yitzchak said:
Avraham would receive the passers-by, and while they were eating and drinking, he would say to them: Recite a blessing.
They said to him: What should we say?
He said to them: Blessed is the everlasting God, from whose food we have eaten…
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: My name was not known among My creations, but you made it known among them. I credit you as if you were My partner in the creation of the world.
This is what is stated: "And he blessed him, and said: Blessed be Avram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth" (Bereishit 14:19). (Bereishit Rabba 43, 19, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 421)
In the verse being expounded, Malki Tzedek offers Avraham bread and wine. Rabbi Yitzchak reverses the roles and turns Avraham into the provider and nurturer.[4] Avraham worries not only about the bodies of those around him, but also about their souls. Avraham's performs his lovingkindness not for its own sake, but as a means to achieve a much nobler and more comprehensive purpose — calling upon the name of the source of all being (in a world that has forgotten this simple truth).
The author of this derasha, Rabbi Yitzchak, likens Avraham to a traveler in a different derasha: "Rabbi Yitzchak said: This may be compared to a man who was traveling from place to place when he saw a castle aglow. He said: Is it possible that this castle lacks a person to look after it?" (Bereishit Rabba 39, 1).[5] Rabbi Yitzchak emphasizes the point of similarity between Avraham and those whom he wishes to draw closer to faith in God. That is to say, Avraham's independent path to his faith is what allows him to draw others close.[6]
The darshan's decision to connect Avraham's dissemination of his faith to his acts of hospitality, by way of the request that he makes of his guests to recite a blessing, merits attention. As for the relationship between the verse and the derasha, the doubling of "And he blessed him and said: Blessed be Avram" is expounded as a description of Avraham, who merits becoming a partner in the work of creation in reward for his bringing God into the lives of those around him by way of his request that they recite a blessing.
Thematically, the first person to bless God is Noach, who does so in light of Shem's exemplary conduct when Noach is drunk: "And he said: Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem" (Bereishit 9:26). Noach is a universal character, the father of a renewed mankind in the aftermath of the flood. Avraham therefore asks that his contemporaries return to the basic recognition of God as master of the world that is required of Noach's descendants.[7] From a conceptual perspective, Avraham's request of those who eat at his table relates to one aspect of the act of blessing — the human capacity to be grateful and to express that gratitude in words.
Avraham connects to people through the act of eating and tries to lead them toward a new religious consciousness.[8] The path he takes passes through speech, which is very present in the derasha: Avraham's appeal to his guests, the substance of his appeal, their question about what to say, and his answer to them. Through the communication that develops between them, perhaps he succeeds in planting the first spark of communication between some of the passers-by and God.[9]
Another perspective on Avraham's way of making the name of God known in the world by way of food and drink is found in a derasha relating to the verse "For I have known him, to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice" (Bereishit 18:19):[10]
Rabbi Acha said in the name of Rabbi Alexandri: This is providing a meal [to mourners].
And the Rabbis say: This is visiting the sick.
Rabbi Azarya said in the name of Rabbi Yehuda: At first, righteousness; and in the end, justice.
How so?
Avraham would receive the passers-by. While they were eating and drinking, he would say to them: Recite a blessing.
They said to him: What should we say?
He said: Blessed is the everlasting God, from whose food we have eaten.
If he agreed to recite a blessing, he would eat and drink and go off. If he did not agree, he [Avraham] would say to him: Give what you owe, and he would say to him: What do I owe?
He [Avraham] would say to him: One container of wine of ten pennies, one pound of meat of ten pennies, and one loaf of bread of ten pennies.  Who will bring you wine in the wilderness? Who will bring you meat in the wilderness? Who will bring you bread in the wilderness?
When he saw this, he would say: Blessed is the everlasting God, from whose food we have eaten.
This is what is stated: At first, righteousness; and in the end, justice. (Bereishit Rabba 49, 19, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 502-503)
The beginning of the derasha transmitted by an Amora in Eretz Israel — Rabbi Azarya, a student of Rabbi Mana, in the name of Rabbi Yehuda — is identical to the derasha of Rabbi Yitzchak, cited above, relating to the words "Maker of heaven and earth." It adds to it Avraham's daily friction with the people seeking his shelter, which is reflected in Avraham's cold calculation in order to get his guests to utter a blessing. The people do not attain, and it is not expected that they should attain, a deep and meaningful religious experience; they agree to mouth the blessing only because they have something to lose. Presenting Avraham in this derasha as someone who uses economic language for this purpose emphasizes that he is operating in a closed and impervious environment which he must crack open. To do this, he must use the concepts of the world in which he operates. The religious mission that he takes upon himself requires sophistication, steadfastness and a lot of patience.
The derasha expresses a position diametrically opposed to the one found in the derashot of Rabbi Acha in the name of Rabbi Alexandri and of the rabbis regarding the spiritual legacy of Avraham and his descendants.[11] As opposed to the other Sages who expound the pair of words "righteousness and justice" together in the sense of acts of lovingkindness, here emphasis is placed on the difference between them, which expresses the sharp transition from the first part, Avraham's hosting of guests, to the last part: "At first, righteousness; and in the end, justice."[12]
This derasha has no parallel in rabbinic literature, and it appears only once in Bereishit Rabba. In contrast, Rabbi Yitzchak's version appears twice, and it has a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud.[13] According to the reading in Albeck's scientific edition of Bereishit Rabba,[14] it may be argued that the complex derasha of Rabbi Azarya in the name of Rabbi Yehuda is an early derasha from the school of the Tanna Rabbi Yehuda bar Ilai, a disciple of Rabbi Akiva. Softer versions of the derasha are developed by Amoraim who omit the element of the pressure that Avraham puts upon his guests.
Avraham's activity is described once again in Bereishit Rabba in connection to the verse Bereishit 21:33:
"And Avraham planted a tamarisk (eshel) in Be'er Sheva, and called there upon the name of the Lord, the everlasting God.”
Rabbi Yuda said: Eshel means an orchard. Ask what you would ask: figs and grapes and pomegranates.
Rabbi Nechemya said: Eshel means a lodging place. Ask what you would ask: meat, wine, eggs.
Rabbi Azarya said in the name of Rabbi Yuda: Eshel means a Sanhedrin, as it is stated: "Now Shaul was sitting in Giva, under the tamarisk in the Rama" (I Shemuel 22:6).
According to the opinion of Rabbi Nechemya who says [eshel means] a lodging place, Avraham would receive the passers-by. While they were eating and drinking, he would say to them: Recite a blessing.
And they would say to him: What shall we say?
He said to them: Blessed is the everlasting God, from whose food we have eaten.
As it is stated: "And he called there upon the name of the Lord, the everlasting God." (Bereishit Rabba 54, 33, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 583-584)
The description is presented in the derasha as an extension and explanation of Rabbi Nechemya's opinion. It appears as a parallel to Rabbi Yitzchak's derasha about Avraham, who makes God, Maker of heaven and earth, known to mankind, without the addition found in the derasha of Rabbi Azarya in the name of Rabbi Yehuda.  In the verse being expounded, the Torah describes for the first time Avraham's calling upon the name of God, in the context of an act of planting. It may be suggested that according to all of the Sages, the Torah points to the development and deepening of the work of Avraham in his surroundings, while institutionalizing and establishing it as a known phenomenon in the land of Canaan which is already beginning to strike roots and yield fruit.[15]
Thus far, we have sketched the image of Avraham Avinu in relation to his immediate surroundings, as it emerges from Bereishit Rabba. The characteristic traits of the father of the nation are strong faith, a vigorous desire to guide and educate, responsibility towards one's surroundings, independence and initiative, a willingness to deal with the daily difficulties of working with people, educational force, determination and life wisdom. He harnesses them all to create renewed acquaintance between lost humanity and God.
Make Him the Beloved of the People
In a halakhic midrash, the Tannaim explicitly instruct their contemporaries to adopt the path of Avraham Avinu as a model for actual practice:
"And you shall love the Lord your God" (Devarim 4:7) — make Him the beloved of the people, as did Avraham Avinu, as it is stated: "and the souls which they had made in Charan" (Bereishit 12:5).
Even if all human beings were to join to create [out of nothing] even one mosquito, and giving it a soul, they would be unable to do so. Rather, this teaches that Avraham would convert them and bring them under the wings of the Shekhina. (Sifrei Va’etchanan 32)
The image of Avraham Avinu as one who calls upon the name of God obligates the Jew not to forget the world outside, but rather to volunteer and act in order to bring faith closer to man and man closer to faith. This is even more poignant in light of the fact that during most of the Tannaitic period, the Jewish people lived in the shadow of the Roman Empire, which was responsible for the destruction of the Temple and religious persecution.[16] In Avraham's time, in the time of the Tannaim, and in our own times, we are expected to help all humanity fall in love with God again, despite the suffering we have experienced at the hands of so many nations.
The Pillar of Lovingkindness
Avraham Avinu is perceived in our consciousness as representing the "pillar of lovingkindness (chesed)," the clearest expression of which is hospitality.[17] As we have seen, however, this is not the picture that emerges from Bereishit Rabba: Avraham's hospitality is a means to bring people to the idea of one God. The following question therefore arises: where is Avraham's famous attribute of lovingkindness?
In two other derashot in Bereishit Rabba, Avraham is portrayed as a model for the fear of God, this being his characteristic trait: 
"And there was a famine in the land" (Bereishit 12:10).
"Behold, the eye of the Lord is toward them that fear Him" (Tehillim 33:18).
This is Avraham, [as it is stated): "For now I know that you are a God-fearing man" (Bereishit 22:12).
"Toward them that wait for His lovingkindness" (Tehillim 33:18) — "You will show truth (emet) to Ya’akov, lovingkindness to Avraham" (Mikha 7:20).
"To deliver their soul from death" (Tehillim 33:19) – from death at the hands of Nimrod.
"And to keep them alive in famine" (Tehillim 33:19), ]as it is stated[: "And there was a famine in the land; and Avram went down into Egypt to sojourn there" (Bereishit 12:10). (Bereishit Rabba 40, 1, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 381-382)
"Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord? And who shall stand in His holy place" (Tehillim 24:3).
"Who shall ascend into the mountain of the Lord" – this is Avraham, as it is stated: "For now I know that you are a God-fearing man" (Bereishit 22:12).
"And who shall stand in His holy place" — this is Avraham, as it is stated: "And Avraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord" (Bereishit 19:27).
"He that has clean hands" (Tehillim 24:4), as it is stated: "That I will take neither a thread nor a shoelace" (Bereishit 14:23).
"And a pure heart" (Tehillim 24:4), [as it is stated]: "That be far from You" (Bereishit 18:25).
"Who [literally, whose soul] has not taken My name in vain" (Tehillim 24:4) — this is the soul of Nimrod.
"And has not sworn deceitfully" (Tehillim 24:4), as it is stated: "I have lifted up my hand to the Lord, God Most High, maker of heaven and earth" (Bereishit 14:22).
"He shall receive a blessing from the Lord" (Tehillim 24:5) – [as it is stated]: "And Avraham was old, advanced in age; and the Lord had blessed Avraham in all things " (Bereishit 24:1). (Bereishit Rabba 59, 5, ed. Theodor-Albeck, pp. 633-634)
The verse that describes the famine experienced by Avraham is expounded in the first petichta cited above by way of the verses in Tehillim: "Behold, the eye of the Lord is toward them that fear Him, toward them that wait for His lovingkindness. To deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine" (33:18-19). Avraham is portrayed as a God-fearing man and as one who waits for God’s lovingkindness when troubles befall him, who merits God's protection. The phrase “chesed le-Avraham,” found in the verse "You will show truth to Ya’akov, lovingkindness to Avraham (chesed le-Avraham), as You have sworn to our fathers from days of old" (Mikha 7:20), which we take as the ultimate source that points to Avraham's essential trait, is explained in the derasha as waiting for the lovingkindness of God.[18]
In the second petichta, the identification of Avraham as the embodiment of the ideal person described in Tehillim 24 emphasizes Avraham's fearless faith in God, which finds expression in the Akeida, in his standing up to Nimrod, in his integrity, in his moral stature, and more. However, the trait of lovingkindness finds no expression there. The two expositions together reinforce our assertion that Avraham Avinu is not perceived as "the pillar of lovingkindness" in Bereishit Rabba.[19]    
Therefore, one answer to the question of where and whether Avraham's trait of lovingkindness finds expression is that in fact the derashot discussed here do not note this trait as one of his distinctive characteristics. Another possible answer to the question under consideration is that the teaching of faith in one God to those around him is the greatest act of lovingkindness that Avraham Avinu could perform.
A third explanation concerning the notion of Avraham as the "man of lovingkindness" may be suggested. In order to do that, let us focus on the second dimension of Avraham's relationship with his environment. The dimension of hospitality does not focus on the "what" but rather on the "how" — the manner in which Avraham performs the act of hospitality. Until now, we have dealt with Avraham as believer and teacher. Through the Torah’s detailed description of Avraham's dealings in his tent at the beginning of Parashat Vayera, his personality is revealed.
Avraham thinks that he is hosting ordinary mortals, not angels. Nevertheless, he treats them with a loving hand, as if they were ministering angels. Inside the tent, Avraham's true face is uncovered: endless goodness, sensitivity and attentiveness to the needs of others.
Avraham enables the passers-by to see themselves as capable of reciting a blessing. In so doing, he frees them from their feelings of insignificance and impotence, bringing them to a position of control, the supreme expression of which is the ability to give of oneself to others. He helps them find their souls within themselves. The capacity of human beings to connect to the Divine within themselves allows them to experience themselves and the world as a place of beauty and happiness.
Nevertheless, there are times when Avraham's request is met with a stubborn refusal. For if there is no relationship between a person and the source of everything, then there is no lovingkindness, no gratitude; and even on the human plane, the discourse turns into a discourse of interests. This consciousness finds expression in Avraham's demand of those who do not recite a blessing to pay for every food item that they have eaten. In this way, Avraham promotes the equation: faith = lovingkindness; a world without one God = an alienated world that lacks all compassion.
We see then that Avraham's hospitality is an expression of his faith. One God who reveals Himself to humanity and shines His light upon it is the antithesis of the alienation of idolatry. By way of the friction with Avraham, people understood that there exists an alternative to alienation, cruelty and violence between neighbors and in human society as a whole. In effect, the people who meet Avraham encounter the attributes of God. 
Someone who perceives his or her guests as angels understands that every person has a dimension of infinity, and treats them with dignity and awe. At this point, unity is created between bringing others under the wings of the Shekhina and bringing them into one's home, between faith and acts of lovingkindness, head and heart, external and internal, love of God and love of human beings. Thus, the image of Avraham as the "pillar of lovingkindness" is included in his appearance as a man of faith in the expositions of the Sages.
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] Another opinion there reads: "'And he called upon the name of the Lord' — he prayed." This opinion sees here an expression of Avraham's personal, rather than communal, service. It should be noted that this interpretative possibility is not found in the other citations from Bereishit Rabba brought here. It may be suggested that the actions relating to the spreading of the faith in the Promised Land begin with an unmediated connection to God.
[2] In light of the order of the generations, perhaps this should be emended to read: "in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra." See Heimann, s.v. Rabbi Yosei ben Zimra.
[3] Avraham's spreading of the faith takes place only when he is settled in one place: first in Charan, and afterwards in Eretz Israel, but not while he is in transit. Based on this we can see the act of going (halikha) (as in Lekh Lekha) as a metaphor for a spiritual process; Avraham makes himself available to passers-by, and not to those who are fixed in their way of life and their outlook. 
[4] Avraham Avinu continues the traits of priesthood, of blessing and of connection to God.
[5] We analyzed this derasha at length in our shiur for Parashat Lekh Lekha
[6] The term "passers-by" (overim ve-shavim; literally, “those who pass and those who return”) appears again in the derasha of Rabbi Azarya in the name of Rabbi Yehuda, as well as in the derasha of Rabbi Nechemya where he expounds the planting of the eshel as a reference to a lodging place, cited and discussed below. See below, as well as Bereishit Rabba 50, 4. This uniformity may be attributed to the work of the compiler of Bereishit Rabba. It is possible that the term overim ve-shavim in the Rabbinic literature of Eretz Israel refers to one who does not know the way; see Sifrei Devarim 53. In light of this, we should note the precision in Rabbi Yitzchak's wording, as he distinguishes between the travelers in Avraham's vicinity, whom he refers to as "passers-by (overim ve-shavim),” and the man who "was traveling from place to place (over mi-makom le-makom)” in the parable relating to Avraham. Avraham is involved in a search, by merit of which he reaches the truth.
[7] Similarly, the very appearance of Avraham in the world is clearly connected to the appearance of blessing: "And I will bless you, and make your name great; and be you a blessing. And I will bless them that bless you, and him that curses you I will curse; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Bereishit 12:2-3).
[8] The question may be raised whether a distinction can be made between outside Eretz Israel, where Avraham and Sara perform purely "ideological" conversions; and Eretz Israel, where the conversions are performed by way of their hospitality. 
[9] As in the Garden of Eden, eating contains within it tremendous potential for the people of God.
[10] In Bereishit Rabba 52, 20, Avraham's move from Chevron to Gerar is connected to his desire to occupy himself with righteousness. However, it is not clear whether this refers to acts of lovingkindness or to spreading the faith; therefore, the passage will not be discussed here. 
[11] It is possible that this diametric opposition is based on a Tannaitic disagreement.
[12] The verse: "For I have known him… to do righteousness and justice," is explained as referring to the commitment to acts of lovingkindness which characterizes the people of Israel; see BT Ketubot 8b. See also Bereishit Rabba 59, 1, where the words "righteousness and justice" in this verse are expounded in another manner.
[13] For example, BT Sota 10a-b, in the name of Reish Lakish.
[14] The manuscripts of Bereishit Rabba vary regarding the name of Rabbi Yehuda. Most of them have the reading: "Rabbi Yehuda bar Simon" (an Amora of Eretz Israel of the third/ fourth generation). According to this, this derasha as well is Amoraic. In the scientific edition of Bereishit Rabba, Albeck decides in favor of MS London, which reads: "Rabbi Yehuda."
[15] There may be a connection between this development and the juxtaposition to the covenant made with Avimelekh, the king of Gerar.
[16] Tannaitic literature manifests an exceedingly positive attitude toward converts and to the biblical figure of Rachav. Some explain this in light of the phenomenon of conversion which spread across the Roman Empire over the course of the second century CE, which corresponds to the fourth and fifth generations of the Tannaim. This explanation may illuminate the words of the Sifrei.
[17] Some of the later sources relating to Avraham as "the pillar of lovingkindness" include the following: Maharal, Netzach Yisrael, Chapter 52; Shela, Parashat Vayera, Torah Or; Alshikh, Mikha 7:2.
[18] So too, we find in the derasha relating to the verse: "And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her, and opened her womb" (Bereishit 30:22) which appears in Bereishit Rabba (73, 2, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 846) that this verse is expounded in similar fashion, and "chesed le-Avraham" is understood as referring to the way God deals with Avraham:
“He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God” (Tehillim 98:3).
“He has remembered His lovingkindness” — this is Avraham, [as it is stated): “lovingkindness to Avraham” (Mikha 7:20).
“And his faithfulness” — this is Ya’akov, [as it is stated]: “You will show truth to Ya’akov” (Mikha 7:20).
“To the house of Israel” — Israel the elder. Who was the house of Israel if not Rachel… “And God remembered Rachel."
[19] We are witness to changes in ideas and worldviews throughout the ages and different periods of history, among the Jewish people and among humankind in general. According to Rabbi Tzadok of Lublin, this should be seen as part of Divine revelation in the world.