Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
"Vayeira Elav Hashem": Experiencing Hashem's Presence in Torah Life
Parashat Vayeira begins by recording Hashem's revelation to Avraham - "Vayeira elav Hashem". It is intriguing that the Torah provides no details about the purpose or content of this Revelation. Chazal link Hashem's visit with Avraham's recuperation from having undergone a brit milah (circumcision), but it is surely significant that the Torah omits these or other details. Numerous mefarshim also note that this encounter is formulated in an unusual manner. The Or haChayim points out that in previous contacts with Avraham (Bereshit 12:7;17:1), Hashem's name always precedes Avraham's. The Keli Yakar speculates why Avraham's name is omitted in favor of the more modest term "elav". The fact that the Torah abruptly transitions into Avraham's pursuit of the three visitors without recounting the outcome or even conclusion of this transcendent interaction heightens the mystery surrounding this encounter.
Chazal derived from Avrahams' conduct that hachnassat orchim (welcoming guests) precedes kabbalat penei ha-Shechinah (experiencing Divine presence). This conclusion requires clarification. Is it conceivable that interpersonal duties, even halachically admirable ones, outweigh the spiritual opportunity and religious obligations afforded by Hashem's presence?
The Or haChayim suggests that by emphasizing Avraham's role first in this brief and mysterious encounter, the Torah signals Hashem's unmediated contact. Undoubtedly, no agenda is defined because the experience was profoundly significant in its own right. Hashem's visit reflected and established Avraham's worthiness to be an ongoing recipient and embodiment of hashraat ha-Shechinah (she-ha-avot merkavah la-Shechinah). The Keli Yakar argues that the interaction focused on Avraham's humility and inward attainments and not on his public persona as the father of the nation. Hence, his role is defined by the tem "elav" rather than by his name.
The significance of the agenda-less experience of "vayeira elav Hashem" may be better appreciated when we view it in the broader context of Avraham's life. While Avraham's initial achievement in rediscovering monotheism and the role of Hashem in the world is monumental, even unparalleled in human history, it is completely omitted in the Written Torah. Instead, the Torah consistently emphasizes Avraham's contributions in the world of concrete actions and interactions, and his impact upon others. Avraham's recorded career begins with his response to the call to action of "lech lecha" which entailed cutting ties to his past. This first of ten defining tests of Divine loyalty occurs after he has already demonstrated his religious activism as exemplified by Chazal's view that Avraham and Sarah had already influenced a group of ovdei Hashem. ("ve-hanefesh asher asu be-Charan"). Avraham's stature in avodat Hashem reaches a pinnacle in the final test, the akedah, which demand that he sacrifice his very future. This command, too, is introduced by the activist expression of "lech lecha". Precisely because of the activist character of Avraham's commitment to Hashem, it is crucially important for the Torah to record the pivotal experience of "vayeira elav Hashem". Bracketed by a life characterized by "lech lecha", it is precisely the experience of hashraat ha-Shechinah as an objective in its own right that culminates Avraham's brit milah covenant with Hashem. The insertion of "vayeira elav Hashem" devoid of explicated content or purpose or even context conveys that while avodat Hashem is expressed by a wide range of mitzvot and interactions, its ultimate objective is simply the experience of hashraat ha-Shechinah.
The Torah abruptly transitions to hachnassat orchim because the experience of hashraat ha-Shechinah further inspires Avraham to active service of Hashem and sensitizes him to hitherto unknown spiritual opportunities. Avraham's pause from active avodah due to the brit milah affords him the opportunity of gilui Shechinah for its own sake, the ultimate telos of his efforts. His expanded awareness is described by the phrase "vayisa einav va-yar", which typically indicates personal insight following a revelation (as in the aftermath of Hashem's communication regarding the akedah - Bereshit 22:13). It is evident that the decision to abruptly pursue the course of hachnassat orchim was not an abandonment of hashraat ha-Shechinah but its reinforcement. When Torah life is properly lived, the committed Jew experiences Hashem's presence in the punctilious observance of the halachah itself.
The relationship between seeking gilui haShechinah and active avodat Hashem has its roots in Creation itself. The Torah initially reports (Bereshit 2:8- "vayasem sham et ha-adam asher yazar") that man was simply placed in Gan Eden with no apparent charge or role. Several pesukim later (2:15), we are informed of man's important function "leavdah u-leshamrah"- to work and to preserve. The Netziv explains that initially it was intended that man simply experience the Divine presence. It is possible that the Torah means to convey that while man is designed to act in the world, the ultimate goal of this activity is to develop a bond with his Creator, to bask in His presence.
Jewish life, patterned after the career and personality of Avraham, its founding father, demands constant halachic activity in a wide range of spheres. The method in which the comprehensive halachic corpus was communicated is, of course, of vital importance. Halachic activism was revealed in a singular act of Divine Revelation experienced by the entire Jewish nation. The Ramban (Devarim and Sefer ha-Mitzvot) insists that remembering and acknowledging the event of Revelation constitutes an independent mitzvah. In the haggadah, we read that had Klal Yisrael merited only the act of Revelation at Sinai even absent the content of Torah that was transmitted it would have been an monumental attainment. The gemara in Berachot asserts that in the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, Hashem's presence is best experienced by immersion in halachic observance.
During the period of Elul until after Shemini Azeret when we recite Tehillim chapter 27 , ("Le-David Hashem ori ve-yishii…") we express our deepest spiritual-existential yearning by focusing on a single, simple, yet profound request ("achat shaalti mei-eit Hashem oto avakesh"). In the very period in which we intensify our halachic activity and recommit to a more scrupulous future observance of the mitzvot, we beseech Hashem simply that we may merit to bask in His presence ("lachazot be-noam Hashem u-levaker be-heichalo"). As the Malbim notes this seminal petition stands independent of any further goal. These powerful sentiments, articulated repeatedly at this pivotal time of the year, apply at all times. They are inextricably linked to a life of avodat Hashem as defined by halachic commitment. The request stems from Avraham Avinu's paradigmatic "vayera elav Hashem" experience that continues to inspire his descendents.