Vayera: Putting God On Hold

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This week’s Torah reading, Vayera, opens with: Vayera ay-lav Ado-nai bay-lonay Mamray v’hu yoshev petakh ha-ohel b’khom hayom, “And God appeared to him (Abraham) by the groves of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.”

In the next verse, Abraham looks up and sees three men approaching. Being the exemplar of hospitality in the Torah, he rushes to greet them and offer them food, drink and shelter. What’s fascinating is that Abraham never appears to acknowledge God, based on a plain reading of the text. Essentially, Abraham puts God “on hold.”

The fact that Abraham isn’t struck dead right there on the spot is significant; God is ok with it. Imagine behaving that way with most human dignitaries! However, it’s no accident that the Divine’s appearance is interrupted by presumed mortals.

An undetermined period of time goes by, and while Abraham attends to these men, God disappears from the text. We have no idea where the Holy Blessed One went, or what God was doing… knitting? Drumming God’s fingers? Pacing? And yes, I’m imagining how I might have whiled away the time.

Today in our weekly Torah study, we discussed this. Talmud Sanhedrin speaks about the wickedness and sin of the people of Sodom, and one of them had to do with a refusal to offer hospitality to travelers; a serious contrast to the way Abraham behaves, and it’s only because of the Holy One’s intimate relationship with Abraham that his nephew Lot and family are saved.

But back to our story. Abraham’s visitors leave after one of them tells Sarah she will have a baby, and God reappears; first to ask why she laughed, and then to speak with Abraham about Sodom and Gomorrah.

As Sue, the other person in the class today, noted, perhaps while Abraham was entertaining the strangers, God was watching to see what Abraham would do. Given that he was recuperating from his circumcision, which must have been painful, would he put forth minimal effort, or would he treat these men as the honored guests (which he didn’t know) they were?

Clearly, Abraham “passes the test” and establishes himself as the person who can argue with God on behalf of justice and mercy. The root of the word vayera is resh-aleph-hey, which means “to look,” or “to see.” In this grammatical construct, it means to appear. The Holy One appeared to Abraham, and then stood by to watch, and see.

Our Creator, who made us in the Divine image, wants us to see our fellow humans the same way. I think God is content to watch how (and if!) we do this, and will wait as long as necessary for us to extend hospitality and kindness to others.

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