Rabbi Michael Bernstein
Abraham is ninety-nine years old. He has just been circumcised, and he is in pain. It is also extremely hot. Abraham sits in his doorway, recuperating, and God visits him in a prophetic vision. As the prophecy is in progress, Abraham suddenly spots three dusty travelers, who are really heavenly angels in disguise. He immediately takes his leave of God and runs to invite them into his home (18:1). According to the Midrash, this episode is a supreme expression of Abrahamís dedicated hospitality and Godís kindness in visiting the sick.
Why, however, did God trouble Abraham with visitors while he was recuperating from surgery?
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) addresses this question. God saw that Abraham was distraught that the sun-baked road was empty of travelers to whom he could offer his hospitality. Therefore, God sent angels in the guise of travelers to visit him.
This answer, however, generates its own difficulties. In that same passage in the Talmud, we learn that God had caused the day to be unusually hot in order to keep the roads clear of travelers who might importune the recuperating Abraham by availing themselves of his hospitality. Now, why would God have distressed Abraham by denying him opportunities to do acts of kindness?
Let us digress for a moment. Water on the lungs is a very serious medical problem, but is it life threatening? If water is found in the lungs of a slaughtered animal, does this mean that it had suffered from a fatal disease and was therefore rendered unkosher (treifah)? The Talmud (Chulin 47b) discusses this question and resolves it with a recorded precedent. It once happened that Rabbi Hananiah was sick, and Rabbi Nathan and all the leading rabbis of the generation visited him and asked this selfsame question. Rabbi Hananiah answered that the meat was kosher.
It would appear that this story, in addition to resolving the immediate question of whether the meat was kosher, was meant to be instructive on a deeper level. It is unlikely that the purpose of this visit to Rabbi Hananiah and the consultation were simply to determine the status of the meat. ďRabbi Nathan and all the leading rabbis of the generationĒ could have resolved the issue on their own. Rather, it seems there was a message to Rabbi Hananiah in the question they presented.
Barring trauma, most terminal geriatric illnesses involve the heart, lungs or liver. When diseased, these organs frequently have the sequelae of accumulated liquid in the parenchymal spaces and alveoli of the lung. Most likely, the rabbis were asking Rabbi Hananiah about a symptom that he himself was having. When he declared that this symptom did not necessarily signal a terminal condition in the animal, he was in effect reassuring himself as well. The rabbis sent him a subtle message of hope.
The story of God visiting Abraham serves as the paradigm for the mitzvah of visiting the sick. By causing the day to be exceedingly hot and then sending him angels disguised as travelers, God demonstrated that the mitzvah in its noblest form is not performed by a mere mechanical presence at the bedside of the sick. It calls for an investigation of the emotional needs of the ailing person and the discovery of creative methods to bring him hope, encouragement and relief.
Kindness was one of Abrahamís outstanding virtues. Three days after his circumcision, at the height of his recuperative discomfort, he runs to bring three dusty travelers into his home. He offers them a crust of bread, but in actuality, he serves them a feast for a king (18:5-8). He offers a little and but does a lot.
The Midrash offers many illuminating details about Abrahamís hospitality. Two of them are quite remarkable. Abrahamís house had open doors on all four sides, so that strangers arriving from any direction would feel comfortable about entering. In addition, Abraham always escorted his departing guests four cubits past his door, a distance of about seven feet. What do these two details tell us about Abraham?
His open door policy suggests that he was selfless and giving; he accepted people for who they were, no matter what baggage they carried and where they originated. Abraham thought that these three travelers were idol worshippers, yet in no way does he recoil from them. The open doors on all sides further suggest that Abraham sought out others in need before they even came to him. Finally, the open door left him open to scrutiny and reflected his confidence that his behavior was always exemplary, that all his actions were a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of Godís Name.
The policy of escorting his departing guests beyond his door reveals another dimension to Abrahamís personality. It is only natural for a person to want to relax and enjoy the privacy of his home. When he has guests, even if he thoroughly enjoys their company, he will almost inevitably feel a certain sense of anticipation when the time comes for them to leave the sanctity of his home.
Abraham, however, did not display this attitude. When his guests left, he expressed his sense of loss without any hesitation. By escorting his guests for a distance of four amos, the legal boundary for personal space, he conveyed to them that he was in no hurry to separate from them and return to his fortress of solitude. The guests saw clearly that Abraham found it difficult to part from them, that he appreciated their visit and held them in high esteem, that he did not look down at them because of their religious beliefs and practices. This was the beauty of Abrahamís approach to bringing people closer to God. This is how he sanctified Godís name.
Incidentally, Rashi reveals to us another interesting method that Abraham used to bring people closer to God. Rashi states that Abraham refused to accept peopleís thanks for the hospitality he showed them. There was a profound wisdom to this behavior. People have a natural desire to express their gratitude. At its deepest level, this desire stems from the aversion to eating, in the language of the Zohar, nahama dikisufa, the bread of shame. By refusing the thanks of his guests, Abraham placed them in a predicament. If they so chose, they could leave without thanking anyone, and feel ungrateful. Or else, they could direct their thanks to God, as Abraham advised, and acknowledge the One to whom all thanks are due.