Rash”i cites the Midrash that Abraham interrupted a ‘visit’ with the Almighty to run and entertain the nomads who appeared near his dwelling. Abraham bid the Lord to ‘wait’ until he took care of the hospitality of his guests.
This Midrash is supported by the verses which opens the Parsha. (18:1-2) “God appeared to Abraham in Elonei Mamrei, while he [Abraham] was sitting near the door of his tent in the heat of the day. [Abraham] raised his eyes and saw three men standing upon him. He saw this and ran to greet them from the opening of the tent and bowed to the ground.” Abraham persuaded them to refresh themselves at his home.
The Midrash teaches that this was the third day since Abraham’s circumcision, the day when the effects of the operation were most painful. The Almighty had ‘taken the sun out of its sheath’ and the day was unbearably hot. This was to ensure there were no travelers who would disrupt Abraham’s rest. When the Almighty perceived that the absence of guests was far more painful to Abraham than the physical discomfort, He sent three angels in the form of men. The Almighty ‘visited’ Abraham in the sense that He orchestrated these conditions for the sake of Abraham’s recovery. It also indicates that Abraham’s relationship with the Almighty had grown more intense since the circumcision. It was this intense bond with the Almighty that Abraham disrupted in order to entertain his guests.
This Midrashic interpretation of the event leaves us wondering how Abraham could push away and postpone his communion with G-d in order to deal with mortals. The Talmud (Shabbat 127a) uses this instance to teach us that extending hospitality to one’s fellow is greater than meeting with the Divine Presence – i.e. achieving great spiritual heights. Abraham demonstrated this when he abandoned G-d, so to speak, to feed and entertain these passerbys. He was willing to sacrifice his own spiritual growth and relationship with the Divine in order to provide assistance to others in need.
The Talmud in tractate Brachot cites a fundamental dispute between Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai and his colleague Rabi Yishmael. The former demands that one fill all of one’s time with pursuits of the spiritual and all material needs will take care of themselves. The latter enjoins us to deal with worldly matters as they come up and devote the remaining time to Torah study. Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai’s position reflects his own experiences. The Talmud relates that RSBY (acronym for Rabi Shimon bar Yochai) and his son Elazar fled from a warrant for his arrest by the Roman authorities. They found refuge in a cave where they lived for the next 12 years, immersing themselves in Torah study and spiritual growth. Their needs were indeed taken care of. The Talmud writes that they sustained themselves from a carob tree growing outside the cave, as well as a spring of fresh water. When they emerged from the cave after 12 years of such living they could not relate people going about their daily work, plowing, harvesting and even praying. They felt this was a terrible tragedy that matters of eternal value were set aside for the sake of pursuing livelihood. Given their recent experience, RSBY and son were not mistaken in their sentiments but their perspective was indeed narrowed to exclude matters of casual existence. So great was their spiritual growth that entertaining engagement with the physical would have been futile for RSBY and his son. Rabi Yishmael did not share these experiences. He had lived his life among people, and part of life is engaging in physical pursuits and securing material welfare. It is not realistic for the average person to practice the utopian life of RSBY. His position reflected the realities of most people.
But Rabi Yishmael’s position was not that one should push aside the spiritual for the need of the physical. To the contrary, in many cases the physical pursuit is the spiritual fulfillment. Anything selfless is spiritual. If it is for the sake of gratifying my senses it is physical. If it is for the sake of gratifying another it becomes spiritual. The motive behind any action determines whether it is physical or spiritual. Even the very material act of eating becomes infused with spiritual value when it is done for the sake of a Mitzvah. Enjoying a meal to merely satisfy one’s hunger can be exclusively physical. But that same meal, when eaten in honor of Shabbat, to celebrate the day of G-d, becomes a very different act. RSBY himself came eventually to appreciate this as well, as the Talmud subsequently relates.
Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant, the great spiritual ethicist of the 19th century, used to say: “Your physical well being is my spiritual well being.” The spiritual gains one achieves cannot come at the expense of another. Although our mission in this life, our ultimate goal, is to develop ourselves spiritually, and interruptions to deal with materialistic affairs can stunt our progress, we are not at liberty to ignore them.
Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa teaches in the third Chapter of Pirkei Avot that when one’s deeds exceed one’s wisdom the wisdom endures. Commentators struggle to explain the meaning of this cryptic statement. It doesn’t make much sense at first glance. In light of this approach to Abraham’s actions it makes perfect sense, however. When Abraham abandons his communion with G-d to show hospitality to the men who were passing by he effectively sacrifices his own spiritual growth for the sake of helping others. This is the ultimate altruistic giving. It is the sacrifice of one’s spiritual development for the sake of gratifying the needs of others. Gratifying the needs of others is a spiritual act, but does not necessarily uplift one’s spiritual state of being; it does not give spiritual returns. Abraham placed a higher priority on his deeds than on his ‘wisdom,’ on his spiritual growth. This is the type of spirituality that endures. It is not a selfish spiritual pursuit, which is actually a contradiction in terms.