Dedicated Leilui Nishmat Daniel ben Aishe A'H by the Zirdok Family
Parashat Vayera begins with Avraham recovering from the brit milah that Hashem had commanded him to carry out on himself and his household. On the third day after the brit, when the pain was at its worst, Hashem visited Avraham to honor him for carrying out the mitzvah and to acknowledge that Avraham had elevated himself to a new spiritual level.
Parashat Vayera illustrates the concept of hachnasat orchim—hospitality, which Avraham Avinu demonstrated often. He was a master of kindness and a host that went above and beyond.
Rabbi Frand quotes Rav Nisson Alpert zt”l, who offered beautiful insight into the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, which can be derived from this parasha. Rashi explains that to provide Avraham some respite from guests after his recent milah, G-d made it an exceptionally hot day so that no one would be traveling on the roads. However, Avraham was distressed that he had no guests to offer his hospitality. Therefore, G-d sent him three angels in disguise. Avraham welcomed the unfamiliar men into his home with open arms, slaughtering an animal for each of his guests, so they can all have their own individual portions of luxurious cuts of meat.
Angels are completely spiritual beings who do not need to eat and could not eat the meal that Avraham provided for them. They only pretended to eat the food. If Avraham was so distressed from his lack of guests to feed, why did Hashem send him guests who did not really have that capability? Hashem could have made a thunderstorm to lower the temperature, a poor person would have inevitably come down the road, and Avraham would have invited him in for a meal. This seems more logical than wasting Avraham’s supreme efforts to prepare a gourmet meal for angels who only pretended to eat!
This incident teaches us about the nature of hospitality. Contrary to what we may think, hachnasat orchim is not so much for the benefit of the guests. Rather, it’s for the benefit of the host! The mitzvah is directed at the giver, not the receiver. The host may provide for the guest, but the guest provides for the host as well.
Unfortunately, there is no shortage of people who need assistance with food, shelter, or financials. The only question is to whom Hashem will grant the merit to do the chessed or give charity. Therefore, the primary example of hachnasat orchim in the Torah is the story of Avraham feeding the angels, who did not even need food because they weren’t human. We must always remember that we are the ones who need this mitzvah, not the recipients. The guest is doing us a favor, not the other way around.
The Jewish people have the chessed gene directly passed down through the generations from Avraham. All Jews have an innate need to help others, from the more secular Jews who give generous donations to fund hospitals, to the endless list of community chessed organizations like Hatzalah, Sephardic Bikur Holim, and the Sephardic Food Fund.
The people of Sedom were extremely wicked and immoral. They celebrated horrible and corrupt sins. Though they stood against everything Avraham believed in, when G-d told him that Sedom would be destroyed, what did Avraham do? He ran to pray on their behalf. Avraham was the epitome of chessed. When a person prays for someone who they don’t really agree with, or even like, is an incredible chessed that we must learn from Avraham.
Or HaChaim adds that when people carry out great deeds, Hashem shows himself to that person to acknowledge that individual for doing mitzvot. This week’s Zohar takes it a step even further and says that if has veshalom there’s a bad decree on a person who Hashem loves, He will send him a person in need at a precise moment in order to give him a merit to be saved from disaster.
Chessed is a unique form of life insurance. Not only does it protect the doer, but it safeguards his offspring in ways that sometimes – as in the following true story told by Rabbi Fischel Shachter – become very clear. The story took place in a small town several decades before WWII. The townspeople employed a rabbi to teach their boys, but they were unable to pay him any money. Instead, the parents took turns providing meals for him and his family. After many years, the rabbi’s wife died, his children moved away, and he was left alone. No longer able to teach, he was replaced by a new rabbi. Those who had brought meals to the old rabbi turned their attention to the new one. Only one woman felt a continued obligation to support the man who had taught her children so well, albeit many years ago. For five years, until the end of the rabbi’s life, she repeated her daily climb of the stairs to his small apartment to bring him his lunch.
Time passed and the war quickly crushed the small Jewish community’s tenuous existence. The woman, however, was saved from witnessing the worst of the destruction; she had died of natural causes. Most of the townspeople were herded away to their deaths, but the woman’s grandchildren somehow found help. They were led to a small apartment where a brave gentile woman risked her life to hide them behind a false wall that she built for them. She provided their meals, each day weaving a winding path among the shops to purchase only small portions that would attract no suspicion. Her apartment sustained several raids and searches, but her “fugitives” were never discovered.
When they emerged from hiding, the children learned that their sanctuary had once belonged to a different tenant – the old rabbi their grandmother had fed. The same stairs the gentile woman climbed, bearing their provisions, had borne their grandmother upward as well on a mission of chessed that, decades later, saved their lives. Giving to others is such a precious way to serve Hashem, and like this story, it may even save our life, or the lives of our descendants.
Against Our Instincts
Later, at the end of Parashat Vayera, this theme continues as Hashem tells Avraham to sacrifice his only son Yitzchak. Just as Avraham drew the sword to sacrifice his son, an angel appeared to him and told him not to proceed with the slaughter, as this was merely a test.
The question arises as to why this command was a test for Avraham Avinu, but not for Yitzchak. Yitzchak was 37 years old at the time of the akedah. He was not a young boy forced into this by his father. Wasn’t this a test for him, as well? Why is Akedat Yitzchak presented as a test for Avraham, but not for Yitzchak?
One explanation is that this was a test specifically for Avraham because he had arrived at the belief in G-d on his own through logical reasoning. In a world that believed in idols, Avraham, in his profound wisdom and intelligence, recognized through logic that there must be a single Creator. Avraham’s great test was fulfilling G-d’s command that seemed wholly illogical. G-d had earlier promised to produce a great nation from Yitzchak, and now He tells him to kill him.
This obviously defied all logic, and thus naturally challenged Avraham’s entire approach of arriving at belief through logic. His obedience to the Divine command demonstrated that he was committed to G-d not only when logic dictated following His laws, but even when His laws seem illogical.
But there is also another reason why this test was unique to Avraham. The Vilna Gaon taught that a person’s task in this world is to overcome his innate negative tendencies. We are to identify our areas of personal weakness and work toward improving ourselves in those very areas. Thus, for example, a person who is naturally a glutton and enjoys overindulging in food should focus his attention on moderating his food intake. A person who is by nature short-tempered has the responsibility to fight against this tendency and be patient and tolerant of other people. We are not here to just accept our nature, to resign ourselves to the character flaws with which we are created. Rather, our main job during our lifetime is to break our nature, to perfect the flawed areas of our personalities.
Avraham, as we know, was naturally kind and generous. His outstanding quality was chessed, as expressed by his hospitality, and in his plea on behalf of the wicked city of Sedom. He naturally loved and cared for all people. The test of Akedat Yitzchak required Avraham to go against that instinct in the most extreme way possible. There is nothing crueler and more heartless than killing one’s own son. The command of Akedat Yitzchak was necessary for Avraham to show that he was prepared to obey G-d’s commands even when they directly opposed his most basic natural instincts. The midrash comments that if Avraham had not passed this test, the previous nine tests would not have counted. This test was necessary to show that Avraham was devoted to G-d no matter how strongly he was naturally disinclined to obey His command.
This insight into the akedah is relevant to many different areas of life. We have a natural tendency to not admit to making a mistake. In marriage, especially, this instinct must be broken. Marriage requires us to hear another perspective and admit when it’s more correct than ours, something which is very difficult to do because it goes against one of our most basic, natural tendencies. We also have a natural tendency during periods of stress and anxiety to blurt out hurtful and damaging remarks. This tendency, too, must be broken for our marriage and other relationships to succeed.
The story of Akedat Yitzchak teaches us that we can and must break natural negative tendencies. There is no such thing as “it’s too hard, this is just the way I am.” If this is the way we are, then our job is precisely to change that very nature. If a man as kind as Avraham could obey G-d’s command to slaughter his son, then certainly we can break our natural instincts toward anger, obstinacy, and so on. To the contrary, this is precisely why we are here – to correct those natural tendencies, to improve the flawed areas of our characters, to continuously work towards rising closer to perfection.
In his book Classics & Beyond, Rabbi Avraham Bukspan asks a question about the akedah. Why was the event called Akedat Yitzchak—the binding of Yitzchak, and not for instance, Aliyat Yitzchak—the raising of Yitzchak? The fact that Yitzchak was bound to the mizbe’ach seems trivial compared to the valor he demonstrated in his willingness to give up his life for Hashem. Shouldn’t the title of this momentous event reflect that?
The Yalkut Shimoni cites two reasons why Yitzchak had requested to be bound. He was determined not to move from mortal fear, so as not to become a baal mum—unfit sacrifice, and so he would not accidentally kick Avraham, thereby not honoring his father. If Yitzchak had reflexively kicked his father before making the ultimate sacrifice for Hashem, surely his offense would have been immediately forgiven. However, that is the greatness of the title “Akedat Yitzchak.” The specific request Yitzchak made to be bound and immobilized shows us how Yitzchak Avinu lived during his life and during his attempt to sacrifice it, with honor, faith, and greatness, like his father, Avraham. The gemara emphasizes their relationship, and the honor between the father and son, saying, “Amar HaKadosh Baruch Hu tiku lefanai bashofar shel ayil, kedei she’ezkor lachem Akedat Yitzchak ben Avraham—Hashem said, sound before Me a ram’s horn so I will remember on your behalf the Binding of Yitzchak, the son of Avraham (Rosh Hashanah 16a).”
We must understand that when we do chessed, we must not be so focused on the good deed itself to forget the essential Torah laws, which would defeat the purpose. Yitzchak performed an amazing feat, attempting to make the ultimate sacrifice for Hashem, and he did so without neglecting one of the foundations of Torah and mitzvot.
May we all learn from our forefather Avraham Avinu to always look for ways to do mitzvot as the Torah commands us, which of course includes helping another Jew in need, no matter how difficult it may be. We all have times in our lives when we make decisions to do mitzvot that are difficult for us. We must know that those acts don’t go unnoticed. Furthermore, for the rest of our lives, whenever we do that mitzvah, even if it is no longer difficult, we will get rewarded as much as the first time we did it during challenging times. May we learn from Avraham and Yitzchak to do mitzvot wholeheartedly and with immense joy.
Rabbi Amram Sananes as written by Jack Rahmey
Do we do make an effort to respect each individual person?
The concept of hachnasat orchim—welcoming guests is introduced in this parasha when Avraham hosts three angels just three days after his brit milah.
Though it may be difficult, it is essential we do chessed even in challenging times, because it is just as much for the giver’s merit than the receiver’s acceptance of a favor or charity. After all, it could be lifesaving.
The test of Akedat Yitzchak required Avraham to go against that instinct in the most extreme way possible. This teaches us that we must break our own natural negative tendencies. There is no such thing as “it’s too hard, this is just the way I am.” If this is the way we are, then our job is precisely to change that very nature.
The reason Akedat Yitzchak is called “the binding of Yitzchak” is because Yitzchak specifically requested to be bound so he would not involuntarily kick Avraham during a moment of fear. By asking for this, he did not deviate from the path of honoring his father and fulfilling mitzvot, even during the ultimate sacrifice.
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