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Jewish Thought

Abraham Chooses Kindness – What it Means to be Spiritual

“The importance of being hospitable to a bunch of heathen idolaters is greater than receiving the presence of God Himself”

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When Abraham was faced with starting a new spiritual lineage he chose giving and kindness as the trait that he would develop to the 'nth degree. Abraham didn't just discover the existence of God, he discovered the way of God. [1]
 
Abraham’s culminating act of holiness, seems very mundane on the surface. God sent Abraham three Angels whom he mistook as people.[2] Abraham was in the middle of a prophetic conversation with God when the guests showed up.[3] Faced with a choice between a prophetic revelation and an act of hospitality to idolaters, Abraham chose the latter. Astonishingly, Abraham told God to wait while he did something more important than talk to God.[4] Equally astonishing is that God in fact did wait.
 
We then read in great detail of how Abraham fussed over his guests, of how he runs back and forth to serve them, etc.[5] But why does the Torah need to teach us the niceties of how to be hospitable?
 
Everywhere else the Torah gives us examples and leaves us to figure out how to generalize the principle to all areas of our life.[6] The Torah says "Look after yourself", meaning of your body.[7] It doesn't tell us the details of brushing our teeth, what diet to eat or how to exercise. The Torah gives us some examples of cruelty to animals.[8] But then it leaves it to us to understand that we shouldn't be torturing cats, or stomping unnecessarily on ants, or holding cattle for slaughter in horrible conditions.[9]
 
But here the Torah tells us that Abraham washed the feet of his guests.[10] That he hurried to order cakes made of fine flour.[11] That he ran to the cattle and took a calf to be prepared for eating.[12] And more. Why such detail?
 
 By writing the whole incident in full in the Torah, God wanted to reveal to us a great principle: The importance of being hospitable to a bunch of heathen idolaters is greater than receiving the presence of God Himself! [13]  Abraham was right to interrupt his prophetic conversation with God to run out to his guests. This requires a radical reformulating of what we define as being spiritual.  
 
Prophecy is a passive process. The prophet receives a gift from God.  Kindness, on the other hand, is a proactive deed on our parts. It is to act in this world, to participate in fixing the world. It is to actualize our potential and thereby become a partner in the creation process itself.[14]
 
God's actions in this world are acts of giving.[15] Everything God does in this world is to give to us, and so we emulate Him by giving as well.
 
Abraham Sacrifices his Cabbalistic Knowledge
 
In order for Abraham to become a perfected giving personality, he had to give up other great things. Abraham for example did not achieve the exalted heights in Cabalistic wisdom as some of those who preceded him, people like Shem, Chanoch or Ever.[16]
 
When you spend your time washing off the idolatrous dust from the feet of strangers, this does not lend itself to Cabbalistic heights. “G-d has enough Angels in the heavens,” Abraham reasoned. “He does not need me to be yet another Angel. Can I possibly add to the world by being angel number one million and one, leaving the rest of the world in need and despair? God created me as a human in order act in this world, not remove myself from it."[17]
 
This is the hardest of challenges; when a voice whispers in your ear that really you could be doing something better with your time. It is the yetzer hara (the evil inclination) posed as the yetzer hatov (the good inclination). And while Abraham may have had some thought he was giving up something, it was just he who became the forefather of the Jewish people; not the holy Shem, Chanoch or Ever.  And it was Abraham who developed a soul broad enough that his name means, "the father of all nations".[18]   
 
The nations of the world will in turn pray to God: "Bless us as you have blessed the offspring of Abraham.

From Rabbi Edelstein's forthcoming book, "What is man?" Rabbi Edelstein is currently the Director of Neve College for Women
 
Notes and Sources
[1]Genesis 18: 19 where God says that he knows that Abraham will command also future generation to walk in the way of God. 
[2] Genesis 18: 2
[3] Genesis 18: 1: "God appeared to him in plains of Mamre" etc.
[4] Genesis 18: 3: "And he said,'My Lord, if I find favor in Your eyes, please pass not away from Your servant." Another interpretation has this sentence addressed to the leader of the three angels.
[5] Genesis 18: 4-8. We will explore this in greater depth in Section 4, Chap. 7
[6] Ramban, Deuteronomy, 6: 18
[7] Deuteronomy, 4: 9
[8] Exodus, 23:5 & Deuteronomy 22: 4; Leviticus, 22: 28; Numbers, 22:21-32; Deuteronomy, 22: 10 Deuteronomy 25: 4 amongst others.
[9] Ramban, Deuteronomy, 6: 18 and 22: 6
[10] Genesis 18: 4
[11] Genesis 18: 6
[12] Genesis 18: 7
[13] Tractate Shabbat, 127a; Tractate Shavuot, 35b): Greater is the act of hospitality than receiving the Face of the Shechina (the presence of God).
[14] See HaEmek Davar ad locum.
[15] Maharal, Chidushei Agadata to Tractate Sotah, 14a
 
[16] Despite this, the oldest Cabbalistic work extant is a work written by Abraham called Sefer HeYetzira - the Book of Formation.
[17] Chatam Sofer, introduction to Responsa on Yoreh Deah, called the Pituchei Chotem.
[18] Avraham stands for Av Hamon Goyim, which means the father of all nations. (Genesis 17: 8) as understood by Rabbeinu Bechaya, ibid.