Have you ever had an unexpected visitor whose surprise visit made a big difference in your life?
It might have been an old friend who showed up one day to express appreciation for a long forgotten kindness that you had done for her. Perhaps someone appeared unexpectedly to apologize for slighting you a while ago. Or maybe you have been a hospital patient and a visitor arrived with words of such profound support that they actually helped you heal.
Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student, my father died at the young age of 51 while I was out of the country. The shiva took place in Washington, D.C. where my parents had been living. To my surprise, Rabbi Balfour Brickner, z"l, showed up to offer his condolence and support. I had met him only a few times and my parents did not belong to Rabbi Brickner's synagogue, but rather to another one in Washington, D.C. I have no recollection of his words to me, but his presence gave me strength at just the moment that I needed it the most. It felt like a gift from heaven.
I thought of that visit when I pondered the opening verses of Vayeira: "The Eternal appeared to him (Abraham) by the oaks of Mamre . . . at the hottest time of the day. Looking up he (Abraham) saw: lo-three men standing opposite him!" (Genesis 18:1-2).
Who were these visitors?
What was their relationship to the Eternal?
Why were they visiting Abraham?
According to Rashi, the preeminent French-Jewish commentator (1040-1105), their purpose was "to visit the sick" (Rashi on Genesis 18:1). So who was sick? The answer according to the Rabbis is in the final two verses of last week's parashah where we learn that Abraham and Ishmael, his son, were circumcised (Genesis 17:26-27). Quoting Rabbi Hama Bar Hanina, Rashi comments that it was on the third day following the circumcision that the Holy One came to inquire about Abraham's health.
When these three men arrived, it must have felt to Abraham like a gift from heaven, coming just at the right time and place. They are often referred to as "God's messengers" (The Torah, A Modern Commentary, Revised Edition [New York: Union for Reform Judaism, 2005], p. 138).
The theologian Franz Rosenzweig describes Abraham as "the religious man par excellence for he sees God in the human situation" (ibid., p. 143). To feel God's presence in an everyday experience in our lives is a great spiritual moment. I invite the reader to consider such moments in your life. We often call them moments of transcendence, experiences when we are aware of a power, a spirit, or an ideal beyond ourselves. They are "extra-ordinary" moments of awareness when we feel close to the sacred, to the "other." I often sense that God is reflected in these experiences.
Bikur cholim, visiting the sick, is one of the central mitzvot and is part of our daily worship (Mishkan T'filah, A Reform Siddur [New York: CCAR Press, 2007], p. 44). Most synagogues have a bikur cholim committee. I have heard from more than one patient that when such a messenger sits at the bedside, and offers her presence and her ear, her perspective and her prayer, the patient feels-not unlike Abraham-as if he has been visited by God or by God's messenger. Just as Rosenzweig suggests, he "sees God in the human situation."
It certainly doesn't happen all the time. Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk taught that "God dwells wherever we let God in" (Simcha Raz, Edward Levin, ed., The Sayings of Menahem Mendel of Kotsk [Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1995], p. 10). We have to be open to the possibility of surprise, of transcendence, of the other. That openness can be encouraged by such acts as prayer, study, and meditation. In last week's parashah and again this week, we see how Abraham let God into his life.
But our story does not end here. Rashi also teaches us that in addition to helping Abraham to heal, the messengers had two other purposes: to announce that Sarah would give birth to Isaac and that God intended to destroy Sodom (Rashi on Genesis 18:2). Both predictions opened up transformative opportunities.
Sarah became the matriarch of the Jewish people, the progenitor of Isaac, Jacob, and those who followed up to our own day. Abraham became God's interlocutor, asking the Almighty to save Sodom for the sake of fifty righteous persons-or even for the sake of ten. In one of the most memorable lines in all of Torah, Abraham insists: Hashofeit kol-ha-aretz lo ya-aseh mishpat? "Must not the Judge of all the earth do justly?" (Genesis 18:25).
In addition to experiencing the Eternal through the mitzvah of visiting the sick, consider the possibilities that these latter two events open up for each of us:
Like Sarah, how shall we help to perpetuate the Jewish people?
Like Abraham, how do we become urgent advocates for justice?
Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff, past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, is Rabbi Emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, New Jersey. He is vice-president for special projects at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and author of When Elijah Knocks, A Religious Response to Homelessness, (Behrman House) and Reform Judaism, A Jewish Way of Life, (Ktav).
I am often asked by congregants about the words in parentheses found in our prayer book, Mishkan T'filah. There are other examples, but the one most often noted is in the second paragraph of the Amidah wherein we offer a blessing to Adonai who "gives life to all," but then are given the alternative to recite in its place "[You] revive the dead." That traditional formulation had been removed from previous Reform liturgy, but has been returned in our new prayer book (Mishkan T'filah, p. 78).
Brandeis professor, Jonathan Sarna, explains that earlier Reform Jews found the theme of resurrection to be too challenging to their theology. The traditional translation of this prayer suggests that there will be a resurrection of all who ever lived at the coming of Messiah. Reform Jews, preferring a more rational liturgy that focused on the physical world around them, were more comfortable reciting the words "God gives life to all." Yet, as I reflect on Rabbi Kroloff's teaching, I am reminded of the Talmudic lesson supplied by the editors of Mishkan T'filah (see p. 79).
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of twelve months [makes the blessing]: "Blessed are You, Adonai, who revives the dead" (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 58b).
In other words, when I bump into someone who had drifted from my current thoughts and has returned as a surprise, I can thank God for bringing that person back to life-that is, back to my life. This alternative allows me to recite our Amidah prayer with a new intention-as I thank God for all the other blessings in my life, so too, I am thankful for the renewed awareness of individuals who reappear in my life and remind me of their preciousness and value.
Rabbi Jay TelRav is the rabbi of Temple Sinai of Stamford, Connecticut.
Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110