Parashat Vayera: The Secret of Finding the Entrance to Paradise
“And Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day.” As our parasha opens G-d appears to Abraham as he is sitting at the entrance to his tent. Our sages teach that this takes place on the third day following his circumcision, when the pain is most intense, and that G-d Himself was visiting him in fulfillment of the mitzvah of visiting the sick. The third day following the operation is most painful for any person…and let’s not forget that Abraham was ninety-nine years old. The Holy One, blessed be He, and our father Abraham were having a conversation, the contents of which are not disclosed. But then the most amazing thing happens: Abraham looks up and sees three men, ordinary wayfarers – even idolaters, as far as he knows – and he jumps up to quickly bestow some of his famous hospitality upon them. In doing so, he leaves G-d in the lurch, so to speak, leaves the conversation dangling in the air and abruptly terminates whatever was going on between them. We never do hear about that again. There is a world here, an unsaid world, that passes between verse one and verse two.
As everyone knows Abraham was particularly dedicated to the commandment of hospitality. In fact he was the very personification of chesed, kindness, so much so that his name is synonymous with that attribute. Thus he pitched his tent at a crossroads and left it open from all four sides, so that he would be able to see travelers in every direction and offer food, drink and lodging. But G-d did not want Abraham to be bothered that day, when he should be recuperating from his circumcision and not waiting over every itinerant and back-packer. Knowing His friend’s nature all too well, G-d miraculously changed nature – He made it exceptionally hot that day, so that nobody would be out in the streets. (Though the words of 18:1 are generally translated as ‘he was sitting…in the heat of the day’, the Hebrew actually reads ‘like the heat of the day, indicating that the heat was not normal, but something especially created for this occasion). But G-d saw that Abraham’s pain at not being able to have guests to care for, was even greater than the pain he suffered over his physical operation. So, after having changed nature already once that day by making it exceptionally hot, now the Creator of the Universe had to change nature again, by providing three angels in the guise of men – just so Abraham would have recipients for his kindness.
So Abraham leaves G-d so that he can attend to his guests – which he no doubt viewed as a Godsend. He aims to prepare a banquet for them, and he tells his wife Sarah ‘hurry, knead and make three cakes,’ while he himself (in his condition!) goes running after the cattle.
But our sages share with us a remarkable tradition: One of the calves ran into a cave, and Abraham ran after it to catch it. That cave turned out to be none other than Ma’arat HaMachpela, the famed Double Cave of Hebron, the Tomb of the Patriarchs. And this is how Abraham discovered it! When he was running after that little calf to prepare a feast for his three visitors.
According to the holy Zohar, Ma’arat HaMachpela is ‘the entrance to Gan Eden,’ the Garden of Eden. Whether or not this is to be taken literally, one thing is for sure: When Abraham entered into the cave, he saw Adam and Eve lying there in repose – and he knew exactly who they were. He was overcome with a tremendous, burning sense of yearning for this place – and from that moment on, he pined for it, and wished only to make it his own place of burial. He was overcome with the feeling of sheer holiness and Divine purpose in that place. It was easy enough later to purchase it from Ephron, who didn’t see a thing that was particularly special or desirous about it. He just couldn’t see it. But it’s not a physical thing that can be seen with the naked eye, the entrance to the Garden of Eden – it’s a spiritual concept.
Abraham wanted to be buried there because he wanted to be part of the legacy of Adam HaRishon, the first man – who like himself also had a close and personal relationship with the Creator. But even more so, Abraham was the continuation of Adam’s heritage…he was his guarantor that all of humanity would learn there is only one G-d. Because Abraham took responsibility to bring the light of G-d to humanity. Until Abraham came along the generations were not looking for G-d – they were running away from Him.
So Abraham discovered this holy place, ‘the entrance to the Garden of Eden’ – what was to become the Tomb of the Patriarchs – quite by accident. Running after a calf which he intended to slaughter and fix to prepare a meal for a bunch of strangers.
Open up your heart, because our sages are telling us here two of the deepest secrets in the world.
What is a true religious experience?
It’s easy to pretend to be ‘holy.’ But what does it really mean to be holy? A person can sit back and roll his eyes and make all sorts of ridiculous expressions while claiming to have ‘visions’ or ‘prophecy.’
In the beginning of the parasha, Abraham really was having a face to face visit with G-d, conversing with Him intimately. But when he saw what he perceived to be three ordinary men, even if they be lowly idolaters – he quickly opted to terminate his intimate meeting with G-d Himself, choosing instead the opportunity to bestow upon these strangers an act of kindness. Because this is the true religious experience! Imitatio Dei, acting like G-d, not just talking about Him… or even, talking with Him! It’s all about action; it’s about doing. That’s the basis of our holy Torah and all the commandments. It’s as if Abraham said to G-d: “Pardon me, but I don’t have time to be with You now – I have to act like You.” That’s how who we are in this world is measured – only by our actions.
So he left the conversation with G-d, and while running after a calf, stumbles upon the entrance to Paradise! Our sages are teaching us an amazing thing: the road to paradise is paved with acts of loving kindness. Abraham was simply trying to do a good deed, to catch a simple calf and prepare a meal.
Doing something for someone else – that’s how to find the entrance to Gan Eden, and that’s how to get in. Action is what Abraham was all about. While some might say that the road to paradise is paved with good intentions, Abraham teaches us that it’s paved with good deeds.