Vayeira for Tweens: Three Messengers

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24

In the biblical view, creation and history belong together. Creation is the foundation of a covenantal relationship between God and world and, in a specific and important sense, between God and Israel (Plaut, 23).

Parashah Vayeira begins with three messengers visiting Abraham announcing that Sarah will bear Abraham a son, followed by the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. After Isaac is born, Sarah forces Abraham to banish Hagar and Ishmael into the desert so that Isaac will remain the sole inheritor. Abraham is tortured by this request but follows God's advice and listens to Sarah. Concluding this parashah is the story of God's ultimate test to Abraham, commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac.

First Aliyah: Genesis 18:1-14

The previous parashah concluded with Abraham circumcising himself and all of the males in his household. As he recovers at the beginning of this parashah, we read,

The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. 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 and, bowing to the ground, he said, "My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant." (18:1-3)


In Pirkei Avot 4:2 we learn that one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. Sefer B'reishit is nearly bereft of explicit mitzvot. There are only three. Can you name them?1 Nevertheless, the Sages derive mitzvot from the behaviors exhibited in the first few verses of Vayeira, i.e., the compassion of the visitors and the warm welcome of the hosts. Immediately following Abraham's circumcision, three extraordinary men came to visit. From their actions, the Rabbis inferred the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick. Based on the Hebrew word adonai, which can signify both "my lords" (human) and "my Lord" (divine), the text is often interpreted to suggest that God visited Abraham while he healed from his circumcision. In Etz Chayim: Torah and Commentary, Rabbi Tigay comments,

"When the Sages envision God visiting Abraham to lessen his discomfort, they may be implying that sometimes all we can give an afflicted person is the gift of our caring presence, and when we do that, we are following God's ways" (99).

In explaining this mitzvah, the rabbis taught, "When a person visits the sick, the sick person's illness is diminished by one-sixtieth" (Leviticus Rabbah 34:1). "Visiting the sick" remains one of the cardinal mitzvot, a divine expression of human character.

Even in his own moment of healing, Abraham is inspired to respond to a mitzvah (bikkur cholim) with a mitzvah (hachnasat orchim or, welcoming guests). The Torah repeats a series of active verbs to describe the eagerness with which Abraham and Sarah perform this mitzvah. Abraham did not send surrogates to do what was gracious. He extended himself with a sense of urgency. "He ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them." Abraham left no doubt of his intention or enthusiasm. His welcome was not perfunctory or dutiful; it was expressed with exuberance and purpose. There is a profound difference between fulfilling a requirement and exhibiting genuine excitement. It is the latter that distinguished Abraham, and we are his children when we follow in his footsteps.

It is noteworthy that this parashah that is replete with the doing mitzvot begins with the word vayeira, "God appeared." Apparently, God appeared via the three men who came to visit Abraham. They were God's messengers and our teachers. How often do we take a moment and look for God? How often do we look and fail to see God? Perhaps we are too busy to recognize the messengers of God in our lives. We may be unable to see the divine dimension of a human connection.

"One of the gifts with which spiritually sensitive people are blessed is the ability to see that presence of God in their daily experiences. Others, sharing the same experiences are blind to the divine presence." (Tigay, 99)

The link between God's appearance and the performance of mitzvot in this parashah can help us be aware of moments of revelation in our daily lives.

As Abraham recovers from his circumcision, God appears to him. Through this encounter the student of Torah learns that "visiting the sick" and "welcoming the stranger" are sacred values. In addition, we can learn that God's presence in our lives may be demonstrated through the way we choose to interact with other people. Theology and ethics are inextricably related in Judaism. Our relationship with God and our relationship with each other are inseparable. God can still appear to us and through us when we care about each other.

To Talk About

  1. Have you had a situation in your life where you felt God's presence?
  2. Do you agree with the statement that one mitzvah leads to another? Give an example to support your opinion.
  3. hoose to perform the mitzvah of bikkur cholim or hachnasat orchim. Plan the occasion together and take the time to share how it felt after the event.

Further learning

This portion includes the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. Read this part of the parashah and write a journal entry explaining the event from the perspective of one of the characters in the story.

1 Clue: See Genesis 1:28, 17:12-14, and 32:33.

Reference Materials

Vayeira, Genesis 18:1–22:24 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 122–148; Revised Edition, pp. 121–148; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 85–110

Originally published: