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Accepting Guests: Abraham Sets an Example for the Jewish People

In Parashat Vayera, Abraham receives visitors in his tent, establishing the importance Judaism attaches to accepting guests = the other. When Abraham fulfills the commandment of hospitality toward guests he is paying respect to a creature of God, created in His image, and is thus also worshipping God. Dr. Noah Yuval- Hacham examines two paintings whose vistas offer a viewer different ways to look at this commandment.

Parashat Vayera opens with God’s revelation to Abraham: “The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.”

Rashi, following the Talmud in Tractate Sotah, explains that God came to visit Abraham, who was recovering from having been circumcised.

In the next verse we are told that Abraham sees three men, who are later revealed to be angels, and hosts them in his tent, feeding them and providing them with drink.

In fact, there are two events here: God’s revelation to Abraham and the angels’ visit. Are these two separate events, or are they tied to one another?

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat says:

Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Hospitality toward guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as it says: “And he said: Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please pass not from Your servant.”

In other words, these are two different events. Abraham received two visits: one from the Shekhinah and one from the angels, and when he needed to give one precedence over the other, he chose the angels! Abraham turns to God and asks him to wait until he finishes hosting the three men. How can one explain this choice?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains it thus – and I quote:

“What the passage is telling us, though, is something of immense profundity… Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of God in the face of the stranger. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.”

Man was created in the image of God. When he fulfills the commandment of hospitality toward guests he is paying respect to a creature of God, who were created in His image, and is therefore also worshipping God. This is why Abraham dares to ask God to wait until he has finished hosting the men who visit him.

In closing, we will look at two works of art that present this idea from a different perspective:

When Abraham first sees the angels, it says: “he saw three men standing on/above him.”

They stand over him, they are taller than him.

The Jewish painter Abel Penn describes the scene in light of this: Abraham is at the center of the painting, bowing. Across from him we see the shadows of the angels who stand in front of Abraham. The left-most one holds a long staff in his hand.

Abel Penn’s visual interpretation

Following the initial meeting with the guests, Abraham rises and begins hosting them, and then it says “and he stood on them under the tree as they ate”.

Now, the situation is reversed. The angels sit and Abraham stands. The artist Meir Ben Ori describes this scene in a painting that emphasizes Abraham’s figure, in the center of the painting, as opposed to the angels, who sit under the tree and whose figures blend into the depiction of the tree. When Abraham fulfills the commandment to host guests, he becomes taller even than the angels.

Meir Ben Ori’s visual interpretation

We are undergoing difficult days and weeks. We are in the midst of a difficult war, after having witnessed the complete and utter evilness of our enemies revealed to us. We believe, against the unprecedented moral low point we witnessed in the events of Simchat Torah, that each person was created in the image of God, to the extent that hospitality toward guests is greater even than receiving the Divine Presence. In these difficult days, we believe firmly that light will conquer darkness; good over evil.


Shabbat Shalom

Noa Yuval-Hacham is the Dean of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and a lecturer and academic advisor in the Land of Israel Studies and Judaism and the Arts tracks.  She earned her PhD in 2011 from Hebrew University. Dr. Yuval-Hacham’s research deals with ancient art in the Land of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, with a special emphasis on Jewish art and its relationship with neighboring cultures in late antiquity. She lives in Efrat with her husband and five children.

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