D’var Torah: God or people – which comes first? What’s a patriarch to do?

Rabbi David Ariel-Joel

The first Torah portion this month is Vayera. It begins when Abraham is recuperating from his brit, the covenant of circumcision he had at age 99.
Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent, in the heat of the day. He is tired, weary and hurting, and it is very hot.
At this point, God arrives to visit Abraham.
Now, the drama really begins, a great story with an important lesson for us all. We read the first two verses of chapter 18:
“The Eternal appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he hurried from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground.”
What is the meaning of the first verse?
God appeared before Abraham; this is a beginning of a revelation. We do not know the content of the revelation, but we are expecting words of Torah, a commandment, a teaching and a covenant stronger than the one in the flesh that Abraham just made.
And what is the meaning of the second verse? What happens here?
God appears before Abraham at the exact same moment when the three strangers appear. Abraham sees the three men and understands that there is a conflict here. What will Abraham choose to focus on? Listening to the revelation from God – to the important Divine message we are all waiting to hear – or the three strangers that suddenly appeared?
What is Abraham going to do?
Let’s look at the interpretation and lesson that the greatest rabbi in our history, Maimonides, learns from these two verses.
Maimonides, in his book of Jewish law, the first codex of Jewish law in history, says:
“The reward one receives for accompanying guests is greater than all of the others. This is a statute which Abraham our Patriarch instituted and the path of kindness which he would follow. He would feed wayfarers, provide them with drink, and accompany them. Showing hospitality for guests surpasses receiving the Divine Presence, as Genesis 18:2 states: ‘Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby.’”
So God appears to Abraham in verse one, but in verse two, Abraham, in effect, says to God, “You have to wait. Hold that thought, I have guests, and that is more important than You.”
Abraham, according to Maimonides and to our sages, teaches us that our moral obligations toward other human beings surpass our religious duties vis-a-vis the Divine. Human beings come before God.
Abraham made a choice when he faced the dilemma of what comes first: God, or hospitality toward strangers? God or relating to a fellow human being?
The choice made by our first patriarch overshadows our history and our tradition. Abraham teaches us what is truly important in life, what truly matters. People always come first, we learn from Abraham; God comes second.
Being Jewish is very special; Judaism is a unique tradition. It’s not so much about being part of a faith community or a religion as it is about belonging to a people.
Today, many Jews consider themselves secular; they see being Jewish as being part of the people of Israel. Belief in God and how I express this belief, is a different matter that defines what stream of Judaism I belong to. It does not determine whether I am Jewish or not.
We learned from Abraham, the first Hebrew in history, that the most important thing is people. People come first, before everything, including God.

(Rabbi David Ariel-Joel is a senior rabbi at The Temple.)

(Shabbat candles should be lit on the following nights: October 27, 6:30; November 3, 6:22; November 10, 5:15; November 17, 5:10; November 24, 5:06.)

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