Vayera: Our Greatest National Export

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13 Nov 2008

A quick quiz – choose the best answer: Avraham Avinu is synonymous with

Both are true, and we could add lofty faith, love of God and many more items to the list – but what word pops into mind and captures the essential Avraham?

According to Rambam (avodah zarah, 1:3) it is Avraham the intellectual titan that electrifies the masses to contemplate and ultimately adopt monotheism; for the Midrash and countless other sources, it is Avraham’s eishel (cf. Rashi 21:33), his empire of incredible chesed (kindness), that inspires countless souls to forsake their pagan ways. For many, present company included, those midrashim portray the essential Avraham.

Yet, for all the Midrashic depictions, is it not fascinating that the written Torah speaks precious little of Avraham’s chesed and incredibly, our exposure to Avraham the master machnis oreiach (host) is singular. Yes, the written Torah yields a rich picture of Avraham’s incredible emunah, heroism, struggles, travels and travails; yet only one episode of hospitality, his encounter with the angels, our parsha headliner, does the Torah chooses to highlight.

For the believing Jew, this is hardly a problem. Mesorah is etched on our hearts and engraved in our minds. Just as tefillin is colorless and the etrog merely the fruit of a nice tree without our tradition, so will Avraham’s kindness remain incomplete without our mesorah.

We are still entitled to ask why Hashem only chose to reveal this particular episode of hachnasas orchim as the binyan av, as the paradigm of Avraham’s kindness? What is unique and special about his angelic encounter?

A ma’aseh chesed (act of kindness) has universal appeal. Struggling to maintain one’s basic existence, the needy must turn to his fellow man. The giver is a sustainer – a life provider. Herein lies the essential value of a kind act. This is self evident and known to all.

Everyone that is, except for Chazal.

Listen to their surprising words (Midrash Rabah, Vayikra 34)

More than the giver does for the poor, the poor does for the giver

Perhaps this is the heart of the matter. Avraham, the paragon of kindness, in this particular act of hachnasas orchim accomplishes nothing! He gives food and shelter to angels who have no need for either. In so doing, the Torah subtly alludes to the startling notion that deconstructing an act of chesed, it is the giver who most benefits – for in the world of Divine accounting, the recipient will get his due, no matter what. It is the provider that walks away with a deed of eternity, inching a bit closer to greatness.

I know of no country that has more CPSI (Chesed Per Square Inch) than Israel. A few years ago, my wife Batyah had this observation about life in Eretz Yisrael:

Reading the Beit Shemesh phone book is an entertaining experience. Nestled between the yellow pages and white pages are local maps, bus info, local attractions and 8 ½ pages of Gemachs. (a free loan society that lends out anything that might be of use to another human being). The list of baby supplies includes bassinets, car seats, swings, baby carriers, formula, pacifiers (imagine running out of formula or losing your last pacifier on Shabbos!), pumps, baby naming books, etc. The general category includes Brit Milah outfits, Brit Milah pillows (a lot of those), chick peas for a Shalom Zachor, English books and tapes, Hebrew books and tapes, work tools, fans, appliances, mattresses, folding beds, drills and electric saws, stamps and envelopes, car roof racks, sewing patterns, and luggage. (Wondering what to do with all of that stuff in the garage? You too can start your own Gemach.) There is also a listing of a Gemach that deals in lost children, but I hope that if you need that service, it isn’t only a loan that you get. There is a whole separate category for Smachot (affairs) that include chairs, tables, table cloths, wedding attire and even pots and pans, and a whole medical equipment section as well. I think that you get the point…

Becha Yehu Chosmin (Bamidbar Rabah 11) With Avraham’s name we conclude our journey. As we close in on the Messianic Era – let us cling to Avraham’s chesed legacy – one that provides us with ultimate sustenance.

Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.