One of Judaism’s treasured traditions is entertaining guests. We praise altruism and aspire to emulate role models who practiced it, Avraham foremost among them.
As Avraham recovers from circumcision, the mark on his body that symbolizes his family’s covenant with God, he receives a remarkable visitor – no less than God Himself:
וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו ה’, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח–הָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם – Hashem appeared to him on the plains of Mamre, as he sat by the tent door in the heat of the day. (18:1)
More remarkable still is that no sooner has God just begun Avraham, that Avraham interrupts his visitor to welcome more guests!
וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה שְׁלֹשָׁה אֲנָשִׁים, נִצָּבִים עָלָיו; וַיַּרְא, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם מִפֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אָרְצָה – He lifted his eyes and looked, and, saw three men standing nearby; and when he noticed them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, (18:2)
The Midrash imagines that Avraham quite literally interrupted Hashem, and asked that He wait. The Gemara learns from this episode that hospitality is even better than welcoming God.
This teaching might seem remarkable. How can something be more important than God?
The Maharal explains that when we welcome guests, we are embracing the image of God in other people. In which case, loving human and loving God aren’t so different.
The Malbim explains that it is precisely by loving others that demonstrates how much we love God, which is why hospitality is subordinate to welcoming God. Avraham calls the men his masters, and ask them not to leave – אֲדֹנָי, אִם–נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ—אַל–נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ. But this is also a name of God, implying the moment Avraham asked Hashem to wait!
R’ Jonathan Sacks this story, God is happy to wait, to teach us the essential lesson that we don’t show our love of God by fasting, retreating into the mountains, vowing silence, or abstaining from earthly things; we show our love of God in our interaction with other humans.
The epitome of what Judaism teaches us is that holiness is not some abstract thing that transcends the trifles of mundane living. It is precisely in our day to day lives that we can encounter and create holiness.
God Himself teaches us that nothing is holier than making space in your life and home for others, and we honor God most by honoring those on His image, humankind.