While sitting at the entrance of his tent, Abraham experienced a Divine Revelation. The great commentator, Rashi, explained that G-d came to visit Abraham who was recovering from the brit mila, the circumcision he had undergone at an advanced age. At that same moment when Abraham experienced this spiritual transcendence, he noticed three people approaching the tent. It could be there was a moment of hesitation. Did Abraham ignore those people and continue to immerse himself in the spiritual revelation, or did he stop and approach the guests?
Whether or not there was any hesitation, Abraham’s decision was unequivocal:
“…and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, ‘My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant.’’
(Genesis 18, 2-3)
Who was Abraham speaking to? The Hebrew is in the singular so some of the commentators understood that Abraham was speaking to one of the three approaching people. But if so, why would Abraham speak to only one of them? Indeed, Rashi suggested an additional explanation, that Abraham was speaking to G-d “and he was telling the Holy One, blessed be He, to wait for him until he would run and bring in the wayfarers.” Abraham gave up on the spiritual transcendence in order to welcome the guests, feed them, and bring them something to drink. The Babylonian Talmud learns the following principle from this:
“Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shechinah (G-d)”
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, 127)
To understand how profound a decision it was to surrender the Divine Revelation for the sake of strangers, we have to try to examine Abraham’s understanding of “chessed” – acts of loving-kindness. We saw that Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent on a hot day to search for guests. This is slightly odd. We are used to understanding the term “chessed” as one in which we fulfill the needs of others. We see someone who is lacking something and as a result we do “chessed” and give him what he was lacking. But we are not accustomed to thinking of “chessed” as an essential need of the giver’s, as seems to be reflected in the story about Abraham.
One of the greatest people in the Hassidic movement from the beginning of the 20th century, the Admor Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein of Sochatchov, Poland, wrote about this in his book “Shem Mishmuel.” There he states that a person who is exposed to another’s despair and does “chessed”, even if it is obviously a positive act, there is something egotistical about it. It is hard to witness despair and suffering. Our desire to solve someone else’s problems stems also from our own difficulties with seeing someone else suffer. But there is another form of “chessed” that is altruistic, when someone wants only what is best for another.
That’s who Abraham was. He did not do acts of loving-kindness only when he saw someone who needed them. He waited at the entrance of the tent for an opportunity to do “chessed.” Therefore, he even gave up on a Divine Revelation. The Revelation includes an aspect of spiritual pleasure, but Abraham postponed this spiritual pleasure until he finished seeing to the needs of his guests.
How suitable are the words of Yisrael Salanter (Lithuania 1810 – Prussia 1883), the founder of the “Mussar Movement” in Lithuanian yeshivas, who said, “The material needs of others are my spiritual needs.” When a person internalizes this, he is capable of even giving up on a Divine Revelation in order to see to the material needs of another.