Vayeira: Angels and Mustard
Out of this world?
A man returning from the world’s first wedding on Pluto seemed disappointed.
“What’s wrong?” asked his friend. “The band was no good?”
“The band was great,” he answered.
“The food was tasteless?” asked his friend.
“Out of this world!”
So, what was the problem?” asked his friend.
“There was no atmosphere.”
The opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayeira, relates the tale of Abraham sitting during a hot day at the entrance of his tent and observing three men standing nearby. He ran toward them and insisted that they come relax at his tent.
Abraham was very specific: “Let some water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread so that you may sustain yourself.”
The three men consent and accept Abraham’s invitation.
At this point, the Bible gives us a detailed account of what transpired during the following moments:
“Abraham rushed to the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Hurry! Three measures of the finest flour! Knead it and make rolls! Then Abraham ran to the cattle, took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the young man who rushed to prepare it.
“He took cottage cheese and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed these before them; he stood over them as they ate under the tree.”
“They asked him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife? And he said, ‘Behold — in the tent!'”
“‘I will return to you this time next year,’ he said , ‘and your wife Sarah will have a son.'”
The continuation of the narrative makes it clear that these three visitors were no simple men, but rather spiritual energies, or angels, manifested in the bodies and the guise of men. These angels were sent to carry out three monumental tasks described in the continuation of the story: A) to inform Abraham that Sarah would give birth; B) to overturn the evil city of Sodom and, finally, C) to rescue Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family who lived in Sodom.
A few questions should be asked:
1) Since two of the three angels came to carry out tasks unrelated to Abraham, why did these two angels come to Abraham’s home first?
2) Why does the Torah find it necessary to inform us of the exact words and tasks of Abraham upon greeting the guests, including the exact menu of what he served them? If the Torah wished to teach us about his extraordinary hospitality, couldn’t it have simply stated that Abraham took care of all their needs?
3) The question the men asked Abraham — “Where is Sarah your wife?” — seems amiss, since after Abraham told them where she was, they did not proceed to address her, and continued speaking to Abraham. Why did they ask this question?
Visiting a Rebbe
I once heard a moving homiletical interpretation to this biblical episode, based on the writings of Chassidic masters.
According to Jewish tradition, there exists in each generation a tzaddik, a great spiritual giant, who serves as a bridge between heaven and earth. This is a human being who carries the burden of history on his shoulders and always has his finger on the pulse of the generation. While others plan their vacations and retirements, this person cannot sleep at night as long as there is one soul in G-d’s universe hurting.
In his times, Abraham served as this tzaddik, the Rebbe (spiritual master) of the world. When three angels were dispatched to pay a visit to planet Earth, they were determined to visit this extraordinary human being. They longed to be touched by his soul, inspired by his spirituality and ignited by his passion. The angels craved to encounter the majesty of holiness at its peak.
When the three angels approached Abraham’s tent, they expected to discover a soul burning with a sacred flame, steeped in heavenly meditation, melting away in infinite ecstasy. They expected to find a spirit dancing with the divine, free of any trace of the mundane, suspended above the crassness of the physical universe and its materialistic trappings. The angels anticipated an encounter with a human being of serene transcendence engulfed in an aura of paradise.
The Shocking Moment
What was the reality the angels actually encountered?
“Let some water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree,” the great Rebbe, Abraham, declared. “I will fetch a morsel of bread so that you may sustain yourself,” were the words that came out of G-d’s ambassador to planet Earth.
“Abraham rushed to the tent to Sarah and said, ‘Hurry! Three measures of the finest flour! Knead it and make rolls! Then Abraham ran to the cattle, took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the young man who rushed to prepare it. He took cottage cheese and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed these before them; he stood over them as they ate under the tree.”
A man of infinite ecstasy? Not a glimmer. A man of celestial vision? Not a trace. A man of uninhibited passion? Not a glimpse. A good chef who knows how to run a smooth kitchen — that is what they saw in Abraham.
“We thought we were coming to a Rebbe,” they must have thought to themselves. “Instead, we ended up at a butcher…”
In lieu of finding the light of the divine radiating from Abraham’s tent, they discovered an old man running around, tongue and mustard in his hands! “We must have come to the wrong location,” the angels mused.
What about the wife?
Then a thought came to their mind that perhaps when they heard in heaven that Abraham was the tzaddik of the generation, it was actually referring not to him but to his counterpart, Sarah. She might be the real master of the generation and Abraham merely her attendant.
So the narrative continues: “They asked him, ‘Where is Sarah your wife?” Perhaps we can get a glimpse of your wife and we will finally encounter the presence of authentic holiness.
“And he said, ‘Behold — in the tent!'” What Abraham was telling the angels is that if they did not ‘get it’ henceforth, seeing Sarah wouldn’t do the job either, for she is even more concealed than Abraham. She is concealed in the tent. Her true identity is not easily appreciated.
At that moment, for the first time, the angels realized how deeply they had erred. In their longing to encounter holiness, they missed the ultimate point: that the authentic majesty of human holiness consists of a person’s daily acts of love, selflessness and graciousness performed amid the stress and lowliness of a physical existence. The angels failed to recognize that the genuine experience of serving G-d means not to soar to the heavens searching for angels, but to be there for another human being in a very physical and pragmatic way.
“Hurry! Three measures of the finest flour! Knead it and make rolls!” In these words one can encounter the most profound expression of human holiness.
“He took cottage cheese and milk and the calf which he had prepared, and placed these before them; he stood over them as they ate under the tree.” In this simple, mundane behavior, one comes in contact with the grace and depth of the human experience: discovering the light of G-d within your interactions and constructing a fragment of heaven within the earthly framework of your existence.
What Life Is Really Like
“I will return to you this time next year, and your wife Sarah will have a son,” came the response of the angel. This was not merely a communication of G-d’s earlier promise to Abraham; it was also a response of an angel in awe of the revolution that Abraham introduced to the world, in which a human being in his ordinary daily behavior can build a home for G-d. Abraham’s revolution, the angel insisted, must have a future in the form of a family, and ultimately, a people, charged with the mission to teach the world how to generate a romantic kiss between heaven and earth.
The angels never forgot that visit. Abraham gave them not only a sobering lesson in what real life is like, but also a lesson of what it meant to be authentically spiritual.
True spirituality, Abraham was communicating to the angels, lies not in man’s attempt to escape the trappings of the world, but rather in his commitment to draw down light and beauty into the darkness of life. It is only here — not on Pluto — where you can create the real atmosphere.
Above the Angels
This explains an enigmatic change in the biblical language. In the beginning of the narrative detailing the visit of the angels we read: “vehinei shlosha anoshim NITZAVIM ALOV,” meaning that the angels were standing OVER him. Later, when the guests are being served by Abraham, we read: “VEHU OMED ALEIHEM,” meaning that Abraham stood OVER them.
It was through this act of hospitality which Abraham transcended the angels; he was now standing over and above them. For it is through simple human kindness practiced on earth that man reaches far beyond the most spiritual angels.