“And the Eternal appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.” ~ Genesis 18:1
This is the opening line of parshat Vayera, named “Vayera” for the word “appeared.” Commentators have struggled with the idea of God’s appearance in this parsha for centuries. It couldn’t mean that Abraham physically saw God, right?
Rashbam’s explanation (Rashbam is an acronym for Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, one of the French Tosafists, and a grandson of Rashi) of this verse is the most popular one. To say that God came to Abraham is just a shorthand way of introducing the three angels who will appear in the next verse. Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, a 13th century Spanish Bible commentator) expands on this idea, and explains that every angel has a distinct mission and cannot do more than one job. One of the angels is responsible for visiting Abraham and healing him from his self-circumcision which happened in the previous parsha. From this, our tradition teaches that even God visits the sick, or at least sends messengers to do so. A good lesson, although for me, it doesn’t feel like enough of an explanation for the verse we’re looking at.
Some commentators focus on what Abraham was doing sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Abraham and Sarah are known in Jewish tradition for their great hospitality and indeed, in the following verses they display incredibly generosity toward the messengers who appear out of the desert. Abraham habitually sat at the entrance of his tent on hot days so that he could spy travelers from afar and make sure to provide for them. Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, an 11th century French Bible and Talmud commentator) says, in fact, it wasn’t just a hot day; it was an abnormally hot day. God sent an excessive heat in order to dissuade travelers and lighten Abraham’s load as he recovered. But Abraham sat outside anyway, and God took pity on him and sent him guests.
Going back to the beginning of the verse, Rashi offers a different interpretation of God’s appearance. Rashi simply says God appeared “to visit the sick,” and quotes Rabbi Hama bar Hanina (third century Babylonian Talmudist ) who says, “It was on the third day from Abraham’s circumcision, and the Holy Blessed One came and asked how he was doing.” In a very matter of fact way, God comes by Abraham’s house and makes sure he’s okay.
But how can we reconcile this interpretation against other places in the Torah where we learn that no one can physically see God? What kind of appearing is God really doing? If we read this text as talking not about physical sight, but about spiritual vision, we can understand it better.
When do we most experience God’s presence?
We experience God in the warmth and embrace of others who care for our well-being and who have a model in God’s simple caring for Abraham. We experience God in the act of hospitality, the opportunities that present themselves to us each day to give freely and to open our hearts and doors to both strangers and friends. We experience God in the act of Torah study, as our tradition teaches, “When two study Torah together, the presence of God dwells between them.” We experience God in the expanse of nature, feeling the rush of the wind, sensing the many creatures that occupy wild places. In all of these moments, God appears to us profoundly.
Our tradition teaches that the desire to physically see God can be a manifestation of idolatry. In those moments, physical sight is a barrier to spiritual vision. But spiritual vision, appreciating God’s appearance in our lives, is available to all.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman is the Assistant Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning at Bnai Keshet, Montclair, NJ. Although she started off her career in the field of Astronomy, she quickly decided to set her vision even higher. Rabbi Ariann was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, and strives to fulfill the Academy’s vision of Jewish pluralism in all that she does as a rabbi. Her particular rabbinic interests are in Talmud study, social justice activism, inclusion, and pastoral care.