Vayeira: God Can Wait

Posted on October 22, 2021 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck

Religious poetry, prayer, and scripture are filled with longing to behold God’s presence. Even Moses, who heard God’s voice at the burning bush,[1] pleads in vain for a vision of God’s face. “No human can see My face…”[2] says God in response. Elijah experienced God in a whirlwind, an earthquake, and a still small voice, but did not see God’s face.[3] Ezekiel had a mystical vision that concealed as much as it revealed.[4] Isaiah had a revelation of God sitting on a throne in the Holy Temple, but the wings of seraphim covered God’s face.[5]

The exception to this human limitation of seeing the Divine was Abraham at the opening of this week’s parashah, vayeira. “God,” we are told, “appeared to him at the terebinths of Mamre…”[6] But having been granted that which is so coveted and elusive, Abraham reacted in a most surprising way, as we read in the very next verse:

“Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them… Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.”[7]

God appeared to Abraham, and what did Abraham do? He turned away! He turned his back on God to welcome strangers. Citing a medieval midrash, Rabbi Shai Held suggests that Abraham asked God’s permission to turn away to greet his human guests, “’Master of the world,’” said Abraham, “‘let the Shechinah (the divine presence) wait for me until I welcome these guests.’ And that is what happened.”[8] The great human impulse to see God was fulfilled for Abraham and he asked God to wait while he attended to the needs of flesh and blood? And God agreed!

As Rabbi Held notes,[9] the Talmud validates this turning from God to care for people saying, “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of the shechinah…”[10] Why is this so? Because, as Rabbi Judah Loew taught, “welcoming guests is tantamount to honoring God,” because they are “created in the likeness and image of God… we can’t actually see the Shechinah, but when a human guest stands before us, we have the potential to attach ourselves completely to the image of God standing right before us.”[1]

There are some who think that a deep and full spiritual life entails an other-worldly devotion. The Bible and later Jewish teaching tell us otherwise. If you want to find God and experience God’s presence, act in loving devotion to the people around you – all people, without distinction or differentiation. Attend to their needs. Be sensitive to their struggles. Rejoice in their joys and grieve in their losses. For as Abraham discovered, God waits for us to do so.


Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck


[1] Exodus 3:2
[2] Exodus 22.20
[3] I Kings 19:11
[4] Ezekiel 1
[5] Isaiah 6:1-2
[6] Genesis 18:1
[7]Genesis 18:2-5
[8] Midrash HaGadol to Genesis 18:2
[9]Rabbi Shai Held, “The Heart of Torah, Vol 1,” Ya-yeara’ #2, p. 32-33
[10] Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague (the Maharal 1520-1609) Netivot Olam, Netiv Gemilut Chasadim, ch. 4