Hosting guests, greater than seeing the Shechina… the presence of G-d?

Shabbat Koshe Parshat Wajerá

וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ יְהֹוָ֔ה בְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃  

“G-d appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot”.

וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רׇץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃

“Looking up, he saw three figures standing near him. Perceiving this, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground”,

וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֲדֹנָ֗י אִם־נָ֨א מָצָ֤אתִי חֵן֙ בְּעֵינֶ֔יךָ אַל־נָ֥א תַעֲבֹ֖ר מֵעַ֥ל עַבְדֶּֽךָ׃

“He said, “My lords! If it please you, do not go on past your servant”.

In an astonishing commentary, the Gemara (Shabbat 127) explains the above verse:

אמר רב יהודה אמר רב גדולה הכנסת אורחין מהקבלת פני שכינה דכתיב (בראשית יח, ג) ויאמר (ה’) אם נא מצאתי חן בעיניך אל נא תעבור וגו

“Rav said: Hospitality toward guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as when Avraham invited his guests it is written: “And he said: Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please pass not from Your servant” . Avraham specifically requested that G-d, the Divine Presence, wait for him while he tended to his guests appropriately.”

This has perplexed many. How could, attend to guests (in this case, guests whom Avraham thought to be idol worshippers…) be greater than receiving G-d himself? Realising that the “basic” answer is: “to teach us how important it is to host guests”, I would like to add a modest idea to this fairly standard explanation: 

Seeing G-d must be the most powerful encounter a human being can experience. It gives an extraordinary opportunity to “see” what we believe in.  However, hosting human beings gives an opportunity to discover in them the “image of G-d” with which he has created mankind. This is a bigger challenge, as the “image of G-d” is a hidden treasure within us. And much effort is needed for it to be recognised and seen. Doing just this, was Avraham Avinu’s life mission, to discover and advance further the “image of G-d” hidden in his guests and disciples.  As and if we try to emulate it, we might achieve a humble improvement (at least in our own) society. 

Shabbat Shalom and best wishes

Rabbi Chaim Michael Biberfeld