Va-yeyra, our Torah Portion this week, is packed full of fascinating episodes. It contains the narrative of the extraordinary visit to Abraham and Sarah and announcement that the aged Matriarch will give birth “when life is due.” The parashah continues with the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah, of Lot, his daughters and the origins of Moab and Ammon, of Abraham, Sarah and Avimelech king of Gerar, of the birth of Isaac, of the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael, of Akeydat Yitzchak/the Binding of Isaac, and of Abraham’s life at Be’ersheva. There is so much going on in this Sedra that one hardly knows where to begin. Let’s take the simplest approach. Let’s start at the beginning.
“Va-yeyra” means “God appeared.” Our Torah Reading opens, “The Eternal appeared to him [Abraham] at the oak grove of Mamrey, while he was sitting in the opening of his tent as the day grew hot. He raised his eyes and suddenly there were three men present nearby; when he saw them he ran from the opening of the tent to greet them, and bowed to the ground. He said, ‘My lords, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, bathe your feet, and stretch out in the shade of the tree. Let me fetch a loaf of bread that you may have a bite to eat, then go on since you have come your servant’s way.’ They said, ‘Do as you have spoken.’ ” [Genesis 18:1-5]
Then Abraham has a feast prepared for the guests, during which the Patriarch stands by and waits on them.
This incident is not the first time Scripture states “Va-yeyra adonay/The Eternal appeared” to Abraham. It happened twice before, in Genesis 12:7 and 17:1 (in last week’s parashah). On the first occasion, Abraham responded by building an altar. The second time, Abraham “fell on his face.” [Genesis 17:3] This week, the Patriarch reacts very differently. He looks up, sees three strangers, hastens to meet and greet them, welcomes them to his home, and not only offers them his and Sarah’s hospitality, but also waits on them and serves them and their needs.
Abraham’s three responses to the three divine “appearances” represent three distinct spiritual actions, activities and attitudes. When he built the altar, the Patriarch made an institutional, ritual response. When he fell on his face, Abraham was awestruck and overcome by emotion. In this week’s Reading, when God “appeared” to him Avraham Avinu looked around and discovered human beings whom he could rush to assist and, literally, to serve.
I think the Torah thus is teaching us that all three religious responses, the institutional/ritual, the personal/emotional and the humanistic/interactive, are possible and proper. More importantly, it seems to me that the Bible is instructing us that the faith-and the life-which combines all three might very well be the spiritually fullest and most fulfilling.
Rabbi Lane Steinger serves Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Community and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.