On the third day following his circumcision at age 99, God pays Abraham a sickbed visit. The Talmud (Sotah, 14a) points to this visit as proof of the obligation to visit the sick incumbent on all Jews as a facet of our general Torah obligation to emulate God. God had no business to conduct with Abraham, no commandments to deliver; He simply came to pay him a visit to cheer him up and make him feel better.
We can all appreciate that a visit from God is no ordinary experience. God does not go around visiting us, even when we are sick. Such a visit is akin to being transported to Paradise or Olam Haba, “the World to Come.” The Talmud (Brochot 17a) describes the World to Come as a place where the righteous sit and bask in the Joy of God’s Presence. A visit from God surely places its recipient in the identical position.
Yet, how does Abraham react to being singled out for such an honor? He tells God to please wait while he offers hospitality to three strangers he observes in the distance. From this we learn that “offering hospitality to strangers is greater than communication with God” (Talmud,Shabbos, 127a). Indeed, Abraham’s behavior during this incident teaches us the enormous importance of the obligation of offering hospitality to strangers (Ibid.). From God’s behavior we learn the obligation to visit the sick, whereas Abraham’s behavior teaches us the importance of offering hospitality.
THE ILLOGIC OF THE STORY
But isn’t there something seriously faulty behind the logic of this story? As important as it may be, offering hospitality to strangers is only one of the commandments of the Torah. The object of observing all the Torah commandments is to reach the World to Come in order to bask in the joy of God’s presence. The Mishna (Avos 4:21) compares the next world to a palace and this world to a waiting room outside the palace door; the king into whose presence we seek to be admitted lives on the other side of the door.
The rest of us are in this world – in the waiting room – keeping ourselves busy observing the commandments, hoping to become worthy enough to be awarded an audience with the king. Unlike ourselves Abraham did not have to wait until after death to be offered entry; he was granted permission to enter the palace and enjoy an audience with the Presence while he was still alive. Yet he spurned the admission and elected to remain outside in the waiting room observing the commandment to offer hospitality whose purpose is to render him worthy of admittance. Does this make any sense?
GOD’S MYSTERIOUS BEHAVIOR
The story gets even more perplexing. Our Sages tell us that the three strangers who appeared simultaneously with God’s visit were really angels. Rashi (Genesis 18:1) explains that because Abraham was sick, God made the day especially hot to discourage wayfarers so that Abraham would not wear himself out extending hospitality to guests. But when God saw that the lack of guests only caused Abraham mental anguish, He sent three angels in human form so that Abraham would have the opportunity of offering hospitality after all.
Strangely enough, God Himself chose precisely the same moment to visit, thus forcing Abraham to choose between greeting Him and offering hospitality to the angelic guests. It is difficult to escape the feeling that the entire incident actually constitutes a test. It seems that Abraham was expected to figure out the right answer; he should keep God waiting and give priority to caring for his guests. But what was the point of such a test? Moreover, lacking a precedent to follow, how was Abraham supposed to figure out that it was proper spiritual manners to request God to wait while he went to attend to his guests?
THE RECIPROCITY PRINCIPLE
Let us begin our attempt to deal with these questions by studying a passage of Talmud concerning the story of the hospitality Abraham offered the angels (Baba Mezia, 86b). By carefully analyzing and comparing the story of Abraham’s hospitality to the way God cared for the Jewish people in the desert following the Exodus, the Talmud discovers an astonishing parallel – God took care of Abraham’s children in precisely the same fashion as Abraham took care of his angelic guests. The implication is clear: the two incidents are related through some sort of reciprocity principle. God’s treatment of the Children of Israel in the desert is apparently some kind of reward for Abraham’s treatment of His angels:
The Talmud emphasizes that this reciprocal relationship between the incidents is not only apparent in the similarity of the services provided, but also in the manner of their provision. The services that Abraham performed for God’s angels with his own two hands were reciprocated by benefits that God bestowed on the Jewish people personally; whereas the services that Abraham delegated, God also delegated. God relates to us human beings in precisely the same fashion as we relate to each other. He gives as we do.
THE PARADIGM OF THE WORLDS
Let us comprehend this reciprocity principle within the context of the following assumption. Abraham’s hospitality towards the angels can be compared to our Divine service in this world, while God’s treatment of the Jewish people in the desert is a useful paradigm of how the Next World operates. The correlation developed in the Talmud between the two events also parallels the relationship between the two worlds.
The World to Come is a place in which we anticipate conducting our entire existence in the receiving mode. While such an existence might appear to be somewhat parasitic at first glance, this is not really so. Being offered life in the receiving mode in the World to Come is no more than just compensation for spending our lives in this world entirely in the giving mode [as far as our Divine service is concerned]. The Talmud (Kiddushin, 39b) informs us that there is absolutely no reward for the performance of Mitzvoth in this world. Yet adherence to Mitzvoth takes concentration and effort and often requires a great deal of self-sacrifice. In broad terms, in this World we give and God receives, whereas in the next World the roles are reversed; God gives and we receive.
IT ALL DEPENDS ON THE WAY YOU LOOK AT IT
But this role reversal is more complex than it seems at first glance. Technically, as we receive no reward for the effort we invest in our Divine service in this world we all function as pure givers here, but emotionally and psychologically our acts of self-sacrifice in the performance of Mitzvoth can assume other aspects. We can relate to our acts of self-sacrifice as people relate to their investments; they may take some time to mature, but they will eventually provide enormous returns. The person who performs Mitzvoth with this attitude may be engaged in the activity of giving, but he actually gives nothing away. His primary focus remains on receiving, not giving.
On the other hand, we can regard the performance of Mitzvoth as an opportunity to do something astonishing that is almost beyond imagination. God is Omnipotent by definition. It is axiomatic that He needs nothing, and that no one can do anything for Him. Yet, in this physical world, we puny humans are in the incredible position of being able to offer God a service that He genuinely needs. Spiritually speaking, it is this wonderful aspect of our existence in this vale of tears that compensates for all the angst we suffer here.
God created the Universe with great ingenuity. He figured out a way to establish a created reality that requires the addition of our puny inputs to His own Omnipotence to function smoothly. The Torah teaches that the purpose of creation was to provide man with an opportunity to earn his reward in the World to Come by exercising his free will in this World. It is only our voluntary involvement in Divine service and our free will performance of Mitzvoth that enables God to shower us with the rewards of the World to Come. The Torah also teaches that it was solely for the sake of acquiring the opportunity of showering us with these rewards that God created the universe. It therefore turns out that God needs our help to succeed in His creation enterprise.
THE ETROG STORY
There is a well-known story concerning the Gaon of Vilna that brilliantly highlights this point. The Gaon was left without a suitable etrog one year on the eve of the Succoth holiday. The only etrog in the area was in the possession of a simple Jew who refused to sell it for money but was willing to give the etrog to the Gaon provided that it would be he who received the reward for the performance of the mitzvah in the World to Come.
The story goes that never did the Gaon take as much joy from performing the mitzvah of the waving of the four species as he did that year. He was in the position of offering God the opportunity to provide reward for the performance of a mitzvah without personally benefiting in any way. He was finally able to do a mitzvah totally for God without the possibility of any ulterior motive muddying the purity of his Divine Service.
HOW CAN YOU TELL
How is it possible to distinguish between the person who serves God for the benefits he will obtain, and functions only as a receiver, and the person who acts out of a genuine desire to help God to succeed in His design for creation and is really a giver? This question opens an aperture through which we can obtain a glimpse of the idea behind the Binding of Isaac.
In what is possibly the best-known incident in the lives of the patriarchs, God decides to test Abraham, and tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac. As God obviously never intended to allow Abraham to go through with the actual sacrifice, and as God has no need of outer demonstrations of dedication in order to see into a person’s heart, what was the point of the test?
In terms of the thesis we have been developing we can surmise that God wanted to demonstrate the purity and unselfishness underlying all of Abraham’s acts of Divine service. For if Abraham were serving God out of self interest, in order to derive benefits for himself, he may in general have served God just as intensely and with the same degree of dedication in order to increase the size of his reward but he would never have carried out the command to sacrifice his son Isaac. It is quite obvious that Abraham would have cheerfully traded his share in the World to Come or any other conceivable benefit he was in line for to save Isaac’s life.
Because Abraham’s service to God was a gift he offered God with no strings attached ? when it was God’s will to withdraw the son that God had sent – Abraham did not question it. Abraham was as ready to give His son to God as He was ready to give Him anything else. His focus was on giving himself to God not on receiving the benefits God had to offer him.
We are now ready to return to the question of how Abraham was supposed to figure out that “hospitality to strangers is greater than speaking with God.” The key to the answer is in this idea of giving to God versus receiving from God. When I offer hospitality to the stranger, I am by definition giving to God, whereas when I enjoy a visit from God, I function as a pure receiver. Someone whose Divine Service is preformed out of the pure desire to give could not have any trouble reaching the right answer. God knew that Abraham was a pure giver and was therefore confident that he could figure it out.
The Maharal explains why this idea of giving to God is especially prominent in the Mitzvah of hospitality. Every stranger who needs hospitality is a human being who was created in God’s image. When he is forced by circumstances to wander around neglected, without access to food or shelter, this state of affairs constitutes a desecration of the Divine image. It’s as though God Himself had nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat.
GIVING VERSUS RECEIVING
The wandering angels cared for by Abraham represent the quintessence of this idea. If human beings are cast in God’s image, how much more so must His angels be considered a reflection of this image. The appearance of the angels was a presentation of God’s image in a state of need. A finer opportunity to express the desire to give to God couldn’t be imagined. Abraham’s desire was to give to God, not to receive from God. So he told God to wait and ran off to take care of the guests.
Just as the three angels in human form sent by God were strangers in an unfriendly [to them] physical world, Abraham’s children following the Exodus were strangers in the hostile environment of the desert. Putting human beings in the desert where the basic amenities of life are unavailable is the precise equivalent to placing angels in the physical world, where spiritual sustenance is absent. Both parties were trapped in a hostile environment. In each case survival depended on hospitality.
As Abraham jumped to surrender his taste of the World to Come in order to provide hospitality to God’s angels, prompted by his eagerness to give rather than receive, God could do no less than provide the same sort of hospitality when Abraham’s children were thrust helpless into the desert.
These images provide us the perfect window through which we can glimpse the spiritual connection between our own world and the World to Come. The common perception of the World to Come as a sort of magical resort in the sky to which you gain admittance in return for loyal service is erroneous. It is not a world in which rewards are distributed; it is a place constructed out of the energy that human beings gave away in the context of their Divine service. It isn’t a place where you live in the receiving mode after all; it is a place where you live inside the world fashioned out of the energy of your own benevolence.
Whatever Abraham did for the angels personally, God was able to do personally for his children, but whatever he delegated, God was also forced to delegate. God only returns what we give Him, except that He returns it in Godly fashion. The servant of God provides God with the opportunity to translate his service to God into Divine coin, which can then be returned to him. He is a giver rather than a receiver, because he offers God the ability to give him in return, an ability whose exercise is God’s greatest desire.
Our world pursues self-fulfillment, in the erroneous belief that nothing higher is available. Abraham was experiencing the ultimate in self-fulfillment – communion with God – and yet he voluntarily abandoned it. He was looking for a way not to fulfill himself, but the very opposite. He was looking for a way to give his very self to God. In the entire universe only human beings are capable of making the choice to give themselves away.
When man gives himself to God, God’s response is to give Himself to man. The World to Come is the place where the two givers get together and celebrate the love they have developed by giving everything they had away to each other.