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Tamar Rabinowitz Dvar Torah

I have been a Tanakh educator now for close to 11 years. If someone were to ask me to identify the enduring understanding that comes from my reading of Torah, I would  probably say the following: "Seeing every human being as a representation of God is an expectation that God has of us."   


I had the honor of delivering the Dvar Torah at two of my friends' wedding in D.C. This wedding was a joyous, traditional and exuberant event, much like many of the weddings I attend, with one difference. It was a wedding of two men officiated by an openly gay Orthodox rabbi. The ritual was traditional, thoughtful in its changes and celebrated their love both for one another and for Jewish community and ritual. The rabbi also officiated as a Justice of the Peace and declared them married in accordance with the laws of D.C. So as you can imagine, this wedding was also historic on a number of levels.  


They married the weekend of parashat Vayera. I could not really ask for anything more than this rich, complex and perplexing parsha to sink my teeth into. In one of the most famous scenes in the Bible, chapters 18, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day when three strangers pass by. He urges them to rest and take some food. They are in fact angels, coming to tell Sarah that she will have a child. The chapter seems simple, but nothing really is in Torah. It actually is quite complex and ambiguous. It seems to consist of three sections:

Verse 1: G-d appears to Abraham.

Verses 2-16: Abraham and the men/angels.

Verses 17-33: The dialogue between G-d and Abraham about the fate of Sodom.

How are these sections related to one another? Are they one, two or three scenes? The most obvious answer is three. Each of the above sections is a separate event. First, G-d appears to Abraham, as Rashi explains, “to visit the sick” after Abraham’s circumcision. Then the visitors arrive with the news about Sarah’s child. Then the great dialogue about justice takes place. Maimonides suggests that there are two scenes (the visit of the angels, and the dialogue with G-d). The first verse does not describe an event at all. It is, rather, a chapter heading. There is a third possibility. And that will be determined by how we translate Adonai in verse 3.

ג וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.

It could mean (1) God  (2) ‘my lords.' In the first case, Abraham would be addressing heaven. In the second, he would be speaking to the passers-by.

Several English translations take the second option. Here is one example:

“The Lord appeared to Abraham . . . He looked up, and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them. Bowing low, he said, “My lords, if I have deserved your favor, do not go past your servant without a visit.”

Normally, differences of interpretation of biblical narrative have no halakhic implications. They are matters of exegesis. This case is unusual, because if we translate Adonai as ‘G-d’, it is a holy name, and both the writing of the word by a scribe, and the way we treat a parchment or document containing it, have special stringencies in Jewish law. If we translate it as ‘my lords’ then it has no special sanctity.

The simplest reading of the texts – would be to read the word as ‘my lords'. Jewish law, however, ruled otherwise and has it read as ‘G-d’. This is extraordinary, because it suggests that Abraham interrupted G-d as He was about to speak, and asked Him to wait while he attended to his guests. This is how tradition ruled that the passage should be read:

The Lord appeared to Abraham...He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them, and bowed down. [Turning to G-d] he said: “My G-d, if I have found favor in your eyes, do not leave your servant [i.e. Please wait until I have given hospitality to these men].” [He then turned to the men and said:]  “Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet and rest under this tree...".

This daring interpretation became the basis for a principle in Judaism: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine presence.” Faced with a choice between listening to G-d, and offering hospitality to [what seemed to Avraham to be] human beings, Abraham chose the latter. G-d agrees and waits while Abraham brought the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom. I love this anthropomorphic image of God, patiently standing by, waiting to be addressed. It is something my students could take a lesson from!

What the passage is telling us is something profound. The idolaters of Abraham’s time worshiped the sun, the stars, and the forces of nature as gods. They worshiped power and the powerful. Abraham knew, however, that G-d is not in nature but beyond nature. There is only one thing in the universe on which He has set His image: the human person, every person, powerful and powerless alike.

Abraham understood the value of seeing the trace of G-d in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine presence when G-d appears as G-d. What is difficult is to sense the Divine presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving G-d and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.

While it is easy to teach about this idea, have student find evidence in the text to support it and develop the idea in the classroom, it is something else to practice it. I moved to San Francisco three years ago. I arrived expecting to face a number of challenges; adjusting to a new city, new job, new living arrangements, learning to make new friends, build community and so forth. What I did not expect was that I would be called on to live up to my enduring understanding of Torah in a city that celebrates and demands that every human being bring their authentic self to the table. On a practical level, that means that I had to get accustomed to seeing things I had never before encountered. It is a city that has challenged my concept of normative on a daily basis. Precisely because I live in a city like San Francisco, it has given me the opportunity to struggle and to fully appreciate this Jewish value which is actually an incredibly hard one to fulfill; recognizing and seeing, honoring each and every individual as a representation of God.

How is this connected to my dear friends who got married that weekend, you might ask? Well, they embody this value. As our traditional tells us, 'acquire for yourself a teacher' and they are my teachers in this area, showing me the power and the necessity that is in this value and modeling it for me in all areas of their lives.