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Parashat Vayeira 5782

October 22, 2021

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This past Sunday I visited our third grade class. One of the students asked me a question – How many letters are there in a Torah? In rabbinic school we learn that although we “Rabbis to be” will not be able to answer every question put to us, we will be able to know where to go and look for the answer to any question we cannot answer immediately. I immediately knew exactly where to go to answer this question. As the students looked on, I whipped out my cell phone and googled it! There were, I told the students, 304,805 letters in the Torah. In addition, there were 79,847 words in a Torah scroll. In fact, the Talmud tells us that the early Sages were called “soferim”, or “counters” because, so dear was the Torah to them, that they counted every letter and word. To this day, a person who writes a Torah is called a “sofer” – a counter – and not a “kotev” or writer.Paying close attention to each word in our Torah can lead to some surprising insights. Last week our Torah reading concluded with Abraham circumcising himself, his son Ishmael, and all the males of his household as a sign of the covenant that G-d had made with him. Our Torah reading opens this week with the words, “And G-d appeared to Abraham at the Groves of Mamre, while he was sitting at the opening of his tent in the heat of the day. He raised up his eyes and he saw three men approaching. He ran to them from the opening of his tent and bowed to them” (Gen. 18:1-2). These three men would turn out to be angels who announce to Sarah and Abraham that, even at their advanced age, they will have a son.

Given that these words are written right after we read about Abraham’s circumcision, our sages deduce that this episode takes place as Abraham is healing from this procedure. The fact that he runs toward his guests and bows low to the ground to greet them while enduring the post circumcision pain shows, according to the sages, the extraordinary effort that Abraham makes in order to welcome guests. It becomes the example, par excellence, of the mitzvah of “hakhnasat orhim”, or hospitality.

I want to draw your attention to the words at the beginning of the verse, “G-d appeared to Abraham.” In every other place where it says, “G-d appeared to Abraham”, G-d says something to him. Take two previous examples. In Genesis 12:7 it says, “G-d appeared to Abraham and said, “I will give this land to your descendants…..” In chapter 15 G-d appears to Abraham and says, “Do not be afraid, I will protect you and your reward will be great.” In 17:1 G-d appears to Abraham and says, “I am The Almighty …… I will make a covenant between you and me…..” In our verse, it simply says, “G-d appeared to Abraham.” We would expect, on the basis of G-d’s previous appearances to Abraham, that this time G-d would follow His words with a message. But, this time there is no such message to Abraham. There are no words to Abraham from G-d. We are left to ask – if G-d didn’t say anything to Abraham, what is the purpose of G-d’s appearance at this time?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, was perhaps the most important Orthodox Rabbi of the 20th century. He teaches that G-d did not say anything to Abraham because there was no need to say anything to Abraham. Following the circumcision, with Abraham in severe pain, G-d simply drops in to visit Abraham. G-d has no message for him, no commandment to impart, no law to decree, no promise to make. G-d visits as a close friend might visit, just to be present, just to be there. When people are friends, writes Rabbi Soleveitchik, when there is a shared sense of intimacy and companionship, there is often no need for words. The relationship between Abraham and G-d has changed as a result of G-d’s promise to Abraham and Abraham’s circumcision. There is now a sense of friendship between G-d and Abraham. This is why the prophet Isaiah refers to Abraham, in the haftarah we read last week, as “ohavi” – my beloved. The bond between G-d and Abraham has become more like the bond between a husband and wife, between parent and child, between siblings or between good friends. G-d shows up, G-d is present, and that is enough.

The Talmud quotes a verse from Deuteronomy, “Thou shalt walk in G-d’s ways”, and then asks the question, “How is it possible to ‘walk in G-d’s ways’”. The response is that one should try to imitate G-d in the ways G-d relates to people. We have before us the instance of G-d visiting Abraham when he is sick, and so we should visit the sick as well. This is not a mitzvah for clergy alone. Each and every one of us has the obligation to do this mitzvah. Yet our congregants are often uncomfortable visiting friends and even relatives who are in hospitals or in nursing homes or are confined to their homes. In order to address this discomfort, my congregation provided some practical training through the Jewish Healing Network on Bikur Holim, the mitzvah of visiting the sick.

Just as each letter and word of the Torah is precious, so each person in our congregation needs to know that they are counted, and when they are missing that the rest of us notice. Our Torah portion gives us a model to follow. We do not have to say much. What is really important is our presence. What is really important is our simply showing up. As one of my colleagues quipped, “Just don’t do something, stand there!”

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Marc Rudolph (’04) is the Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom in Naperville, Illinois and is the current President of the Chicago Board of Rabbis