As a child of four or five, Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch, during an encounter with his grandfather, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, burst into tears. He had learned in Cheder the opening verse of Parshas Vayeira: “And G-d revealed himself to Avraham…” “Why,” wept the child, “Doesn’t G-d reveal Himself to me?!”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel replied: “When a righteous Jew, at the age of 99, realizes that he must circumcise himself – that he must continue to perfect himself – he is worthy that G-d should reveal Himself to him.”
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“As a young man, full of questions about faith, I travelled to the United States where, I had heard, there were outstanding rabbis. I met many, but I also had the privilege of meeting the greatest Jewish leader of my generation, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Heir to the dynastic leadership of a relatively small group of Jewish mystics, he had escaped from Europe to New York during the Second World War and had turned the tattered remnants of his flock into a worldwide movement.
Wherever I travelled, I heard tales of his extraordinary leadership, many verging on the miraculous. He was, I was told, one of the outstanding charismatic leaders of our time. I resolved to meet him if I could.
I did, and was utterly surprised. He was certainly not charismatic in any conventional sense. Quiet, self-effacing, understated, one might hardly have noticed him had it not been for the reverence in which he was held by his disciples.
That meeting, though, changed my life. He was a world-famous figure. I was an anonymous student from three thousand miles away. Yet in his presence I seemed to be the most important person in the world. He asked me about myself; he listened carefully; he challenged me to become a leader, something I had never contemplated before. Quickly it became clear to me that he believed in me more than I believed in myself.
As I left the room, it occurred to me that it had been full of my presence and his absence. Perhaps that is what listening is, considered as a religious act. I then knew that greatness is measured by what we efface ourselves towards. There was no grandeur in his manner; neither was there any false modesty. He was serene, dignified, majestic; a man of transcending humility who gathered you into his embrace and taught you to look up.
(Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth)
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Where do you go when you reach the top? What awaits you when you finally arrive at “The land that I shall show you?”
In today’s money minded, ostentatious oriented atmosphere, where humility and refined character traits have lost their importance, the trend when achieving greatness, is to hire an agent to polish-up (or in some cases clean-up) your image. You then let loose of some outlandish attention grabbing remark or PR stunt, and with any luck, you get to sell your story to the press for a six-figure sum.
In today’s environment of irresistible recognition-seeking, your goal upon reaching the zenith, would commonly be to try and land your own television talk show and dispense wisdom to the millions of entertainment thirsty viewers. After your fifteen minutes of fame, you’re apt to spend the rest of your life waiting for your next moment in the lime light – thinking, brainstorming, obsessing on how to reinvent and repackage yourself to suit the ever-changing fascination and interest of the pleasure driven mass media consumer.
That however is, quite obviously, not Judaism’s idea of post success aspirations. So what does Judaism say about this subject? Does the Torah even recognize such a thing as a post success state? Our Parsha holds the answer to this quandary and the model is none other than our glorious ancestor Avraham.
The Torah portion of Vayeira – “Revelation,” opens with the classic narrative of Avraham’s extraordinary visitors. A mere three days after he circumcised himself in accordance with the Divine command, he is treated to a surprise visit from the Almighty Himsef: “And G-d revealed Himself to him [Avraham] in the Plains of Mamrei….” (Bereishis 18:1).
The Torah continues to relate how, at that very same time, three angels disguised as Arabs passed by Avraham’s tent and how he ran to greet them and offer them food and shelter from the blazing sun: “Let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may sustain yourselves, then you may go on – Inasmuch as you have passed your servant’s way” (Genesis 18: 4-5).
As soon as they accept his take-no-for-an-answer invitation, Avraham gets right to work. For starters he fetches them butter and milk. While his wife Sara bakes the bread, the lad (Yishmael) prepares the meat. Before you know it he serves up a sumptuous meal fitting for a king. He doesn’t just provide them with a good meal; he personally stands doting over their every need.
For three guests, total strangers, who he had never seen before in his life he runs to the cattle and, as our Rabbis infer, he slaughters three animals. He does it so that each guest would have his own tongue (apparently a great delicacy). In truth the size of one tongue from a single head of cattle is far more than enough to feed three people! In fact, it is virtually impossible for one person to finish a whole tongue in a single sitting.
Avraham used tremendous quantities in virtually everything that he prepared for his guests. If the guests would have consumed even a significant fraction of the amount of bread provided, they would not have had any room left for the tongue.
Here is a man who is 99 years of age, who had just performed a minor operation on himself, running around during the peak of heat of the hottest day on record, serving guests who are perfect nomadic strangers. To top that all, he had actually walked away from the presence of the most revered visitor; the Creator himself, leaving Him hanging until he could return from his do-good mission.
Not only were Avraham and Sara elderly at the time, Avraham was, in fact, at the pinnacle of his material and spiritual career. He lacked no financial means; he had all the kitchen help he could ever want. The Torah itself attests to Avraham’s extraordinary success: “And Avraham grew old and came into days and G-d blessed Avraham with everything” (Gen. 24: 1).
On the non-materialistic level Avraham was also extremely well accomplished. He was recognized and respected as a saintly theologian and pedagogue. He was, in fact, at his highest level of spiritual achievement. According to Kabalistic teachings, Avraham had reached a marked milestone by virtue of the act of circumcision. Prior to that time, Avraham could only communicate with G-d by means of a vision – “Bamachazeh.” After his circumcision, he attained the lofty state in which could communicate with G-d in “Real time.”
Before G-d commanded him to perform the mitzvah of circumcision, Avraham’s service was, for the most part, self-motivated. As such, his service was necessarily limited, since a mortal being can only reach so high through his own intellect. After his fulfillment of the G-dly command he became newly endowed with the power from Above – with the ability to unite with the Almighty through the performance of a boundless G-dly commandment, thereby enabling him to reach infinitely higher.
Moreover, performing the mitzvah of circumcision also had the effect of wholly nullifying Avraham and uniting him with G-d, for the commandment of circumcision possesses a quality possessed by no other mitzvah — it is performed upon the person’s body itself, so that the physical body is aware of its nullification and unification with G-d.
Accordingly, the level of Avraham’s service prior to the mitzvah of circumcision paled by comparison to his level afterwards, for by virtue of the command to circumcise himself he has become completely transformed – he has achieved the level of human perfection.
At this juncture Avraham could have given up his involvement with the physical dimension of his faith – he could easily have seen himself as being beyond the need to be preoccupied with the mundane world. After all, he could’ve argued, “I have arrived at the peak of Divine attunement, could I not better devote my time and energy to lofty meditations and Divine cleavage?”
Yet, despite having reached the epitome of human perfection, Avraham does not decide to abandon the physical Mitzvos, but to the contrary, he is portrayed at this point as being actively involved, beyond what could be expected.
Having read at the conclusion of the previous Parsha about Avraham’s courageous act of Bris Milah and, as a result, of his quantum transformation, one might expect to find him, in the opening of our Parsha, atop a mountain meditating in seclusion, or perhaps writing a book, yet to our surprise we catch him sitting outside his tent, in the blazing heat looking for someone to feed. Based on this episode, the Talmud tells us that, “Offering hospitality to guests is greater than being in the Divine Presence.” Even though Avraham reached the elevated level of having G-d appear to him, says the S’fas Emes, he nevertheless remained truly humble.
King David epitomized this type humility. When chastised by his wife Michal for seeming to demean the office of the king by publicly dancing before the Ark of the Covenant, he said, “I am [and shall always remain] lowly in my own eyes” (Samuel 2 6:22).
The lesson is rather obvious: A Jew never outgrows Judaism. A Jew never outgrows the G-dly commandments, not the ones between man and G-d, nor the ones between man and fellow man.
While Avraham was the first and firmest believer in one G-d, in a world that was immersed in idolatry, he also established a doctrine of kindness, hospitality, compassion, righteousness and justice. “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, that they should observe the way of God, to perform righteousness and justice.” (Bereishit 18:19)
Avraham is as famous for his hospitality as he is for his belief in G-d. If G-d is sacred, then man, who is formed in His image, is as well, and must be treated as such.
In fact, a bit later we are taught that Avraham planted (or established) an “Aishel” in Be’er Sheva. The Talmud debates whether an Aishel is an inn or an orchard to feed wayfarers. Either way, Avraham’s commitment to helping others seems to have grown along with his spiritual development, it never declines.
Avraham’s conduct furthermore teaches us the importance of personally fulfilling a mitzvah. Our sages tell us that it is always better to perform the mitzvah ourselves than to delegate it to someone else on our behalf. Performing mitzvos should be viewed as an honor and privilege. By performing a mitzvah, we fulfill G-d’s will and thus connect and become united with G-d.
While sometimes we have to examine and search for the practical lesson of a given Torah portion or narrative, the opening narrative of our Parsha is all lesson. While one may choose to mine for deeper meanings and interpretations, the simple and obvious meaning can never be ignored.
May we take the obvious and blatant lesson of our Parsha to heart. No matter how holy we think we are, no matter how spiritual we believe we’ve become, we must not forget the foundation and basis of our religion and holy Torah.
No matter how much Talmud we have studied, no matter how much Kabbalah we may have learned, we must keep the Divine commandments, from the most lofty to what may appear to us like the most simple.
Never shall we outgrow our responsibility towards our fellow man, nor shall we allow our hearts to become cold and desensitized towards the plight of another human being.
Our commitment and dedication to the path cut by our grand ancestor Avraham, will give us the merit and strength to bring his mission to fruition with the coming of righteous Moshiach BBA.