Rabbi Nathan Godleman
‘The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance to the tent as the day grew hot.’
Thus begins chapter eighteen of the book of Genesis and Parashat Vayera, which details the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac. Whether Christian or Jewish, it shapes our understanding of the scene which unfolds. Through the haze of the desert sun, God is with or among the three visitors to Abraham’s tent. They are more than anashim, well translated in the Jewish Publication Society version as ‘figures’. There is something divine about them, suggested further by the form of address employed: Adonai. Who is being addressed here? Nachmanides says that Abraham recognised them as angels and therefore called them by their Master’s Name. The cantillation marks, or te’amim, may lead us in the same direction. In verse two Abraham sees the three figures and then perceives. Although the Hebrew word vayar is used twice, the diamond-shaped revia causes us to linger over the word the second time. Is it at this point that Abraham understands the nature of his visitors? Rashi offers a more mundane explanation: ‘He saw that they were standing in one place and understood that they did not wish to trouble him.’
Our reading of the text up until then may have been similar had it not been for the preceding verse. Yet, what if verse one belonged to last week’s portion instead, with Abraham visited by God as a reward for his obedience in circumcising himself, Ishmael, the men of his household and his male slaves? It would explain, according to Nachmanides, the use of the personal pronoun ‘him’, as Abraham had been mentioned by name only two verses earlier. ‘Does not this last verse (18:1) sound like the grand finale to all that preceded, the reward for all the effort and sacrifice, the crowning touch to the building?’ asks Nehama Leibowitz in Studies in Bereshit/ Genesis (Jerusalem, 1972). If so, our portion can begin with verse two: ‘Looking up, he saw three figures [let us say men or people] standing near him.’ In doing so, in removing the supernatural at this early point of the story at least, we actually elevate Abraham. His hospitality is no longer dependent on the status of his visitors; he is simply responding to them as human beings.
There is another verse which may be influencing our reading of the story, albeit from the Christian Bible: ‘Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.’ (Hebrews 13:2) Certainly, angels do not need our hospitality, nor the food and drink which Abraham provides (which they only appear to eat, according to Rashi). If we are keeping a tally of our forefather’s deeds and misdeeds, let a novel reading of the opening to Vayera be to his credit, in which Abraham does not perceive the Divine before acting, nor even the Divine Image; he needs only see the human.
Rabbi Nathan Godleman, The South London Liberal Synagogue
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