Vayera 5783 - Seeing God in the World
Abraham finished last week’s Torah portion with a self-operated circumcision, so it would make sense that this week, in Parashat Vayera, he is resting under a tree, healing his delicate wound. But right out of the gate, his relaxation is disturbed when we read, “God appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three figures standing near him. Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing low to the ground, he said, ‘My lords, If it pleases you, do not go on past your servant, let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.’” (Genesis 18:1-4)
The second part makes a lot of sense. Knowing everything we do about Abraham, it is reasonable that he would run to take care of guests arriving at his home, would put his own physical pain aside in service of others. The part that requires a bit of an interpretative leap is God’s role in things. The most obvious interpretation, and the one most commonly applied, is that God came to Abraham in the form of these three men, that they were angels or emissaries of God, representing God’s intentions in their mission. The idea of angelic agents certainly makes sense, especially as the “men” descend into Sodom to bring forward God’s will. But we also see Abraham interact many times with God directly, leaving us to ask why we need an intermediary in this discussion.
So what is an alternative interpretation that helps us to understand what Abraham sees when these wanderers approach his tent? I like to think that God appeared to Abraham within himself. When he looked out and saw these strangers approaching, they were certainly agents of God, but that isn’t how Abraham encountered God. Rather, it was because of Abraham’s focus on holiness that he was able to see his obligation to kindness and compassion, stirring him from his own pain and self-reflection. Abraham isn’t seeing that God is coming to him in particular, necessarily, but is rather seeing the Divine Spark within himself mirrored on the needs of these wandering strangers.
Abraham has just had a transformative moment, going from Avram, a regular person, to Abraham, God’s Chosen One. And that change manifests in the way he experiences the world around him. Whereas in the past he might have seen these wandering strangers as ordinary people, people who had their own wants and needs independent of him, Abraham now sees something sacred, something profound, something holy in the needs of others. By fully embracing his connection to the Divine, he is ready to go to work to serve this concept of sanctity in the world around him, partners with God in reproducing holiness, rather than a bystander recipient of it.
As if we need more proof, the next story shows God sharing plans to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Unlike Noah two weeks ago, this time Abraham steps outside of himself and defends the cause of the righteous, asking God to remember that there is something beautiful and majestic about human beings that needs to be examined before we destroy life. While his plea is in vein (the towns are destroyed because there simply aren’t enough righteous people), it shows a changed man, more capable of seeing the world around him and responding with compassion and love. This deep commitment to the sacred can lead us astray (just ask Isaac later on in this section), but what a profound gift faith can be when it teaches us how to view the world with more openness and care.