Double Vision

November 13th, 2005 by Yaakov Ellis

וישא עיניו וירא, והנה שלשה אנשים נצבים עליו; וירא וירץ לקראתם מפתח האהל, וישתחו ארצה
And he (Avraham) raised his eyes and saw, and behold there were three men standing by him, and he saw and ran to the door of the tent to greet them, bowing down to the ground

Bereishit 18:2

וירא בשכינה, וירא במלאכים…אמר אם רואה אני ששכינה ממתנת עליהם אני יודע שהם בני אדם גדולים.
And he saw – the Divine presence; And he saw – the angels…(Avraham) said: if I see that the Divine presence waits for them, I know that they are men of importance.

Midrash Bereishit Rabba 48:9

We read twice in the same verse that Avraham “saw”. Why is this verb repeated? According to Midrash Rabba (see above), the first time Avraham “saw”, he saw the Divine presence. The second time he “saw”, he saw the angels who were standing in front of him. Why is Avraham’s attention divided in this way?

(More on that very soon). The Midrash goes on after this to say that when Avraham was looking at the angels, he was examining them to see if they were really important men. Some of the commentaries on this passuk make point out that when Avraham went to take care of the angels (who appeared to him as three men) he was forgoing the Divine presence (the shechina for the sake of the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim – welcoming of guests. If this mitzvah was so important as to take precedence over the shechina, why would it matter whether the guests were men of importance or not? Whether or not the guests are men of importance, they are still nothing when compared to the shechina. Therefore, the fact that this mitzvah took precedence over the shechina should have been independent of who the guests were. So what was Avraham looking for?

The Netziv (Rav Nafatali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin) addresses these questions in his commentary HaEmek Davar. At first, Avraham was busy with welcoming the Divine presence. In addition to this giving Avraham great enjoyment (at least on the spiritual level), Avraham was also fulfilling the positive commandment of Loving God. This is a commandment that applies to all people at all times. However, if in the middle of fulfilling this mitzvah (or any other positive, non-timebound mitzvah) one is called to perform another mitzvah which must be performed at that time, the second mitzvah takes precedence. Thus, Avraham was obligated to stop performing the first mitzvah (Loving God) in favor of the second mitzvah (welcoming guests).

However, the halacha to stop performing one mitzvah for the sake of a second mitzvah only applies for a person when He is the very person who Must perform the second mitzvah. If the second mitzvah can be performed through an intermediary party, then one can continue to fulfill the first mitzvah, while sending off one’s messenger to fulfill the second.

Thus it was with Avraham. When the three men came along, he looked them over, examined them to see if they were important people. This was not to see whether or not they were worthy of being welcomed – the mitzvah of welcoming guests applies to every guest. Rather, it was to see whether they were so important that it would be insulting to them if anyone other than the host himself (Avraham) was the one greeting and serving them. Once he observed that the Divine presence would wait on their behalf, and observed the way that they treated one another, he saw that they were truly important people. For important people like that, it would not suffice to send a servant to welcome them. For guests like these, Avraham had to do the welcoming. And for this, the Shechina could (and did) wait.

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