No Good Turn Goes Unrewarded
God’s appearance before Avraham is enigmatic. The Torah, itself, does not make apparent its purpose. It is only the sages who chime in and tell us that God appeared to Avraham as an act of bikkur holim – visiting the sick, since in the previous episode, Avraham had circumcised himself and was still languishing from the wound. The Torah, itself, though, is much more interested in giving us a detailed account of Avraham’s magnanimous hospitality towards the visitors who showed up to his tent in the desert. Avraham and Sarah lavish on their guests both attention and a generous repast:
And the Lord appeared to him in the Teribinths of Mamre when he was sitting by the tent flap in the heat of the day. And he raised his eyes and saw, and, look, three men were standing before him. He saw and he ran toward them from the tent flap and bowed to the ground. And he said, “My lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be fetched and bathe your feet and stretch out under the tree, and let me fetch a morsel of bread, and refresh yourselves… And Avraham hurried to the tent to Sarah… And to the herd Avraham ran and fetched a tender a goodly calf… and he set these before then, he standing over them under the tree…” (Genesis 18:1-9)
Avraham and Sarah’s behavior, as fore-parents of the Jewish people, have left an indelible impression on the Jewish imagination and serves as a paradigm for the mitzvah of “hakhnasat orhim – hospitality”. The sages sought to reinforce this model in the following midrash based on the above passage:
This is to teach you that with what measure a man metes out, it is meted out to him… About Avraham it is written: “Let now a little water be fetched” (Genesis 18.4), and [in return,] the Holy One, blessed be He, caused the well to come up for his children in the wilderness, as it is said: “Then sang Israel this song: ‘Spring up O well—sing out to it’” (Numbers 21.17). About Avraham it is written: “Let me fetch a morsel of bread” (Genesis 18.5), and God sent down the manna to his children in the wilderness, as it is said: “Behold, I will cause to rain bread from heaven for you” (Exodus 16.4). About Avraham it is written: “And to the herd, Avraham ran” (Gen. 18.7), and the Holy One, blessed be He, drove up the quail for his children in the wilderness, as it is said: “And there went forth a wind from the Lord and brought across quails from the sea” (Numbers 11.31). About Avraham it is written: “Stretch out under the tree” (Genesis 18.4), and the Holy One, blessed be He, spread out seven clouds of glory for his children, as it is said: “He spread a cloud for a screen” (Psalms 105.39). About Abraham it is written: “he standing over them” (Genesis 18.8), and the Holy One, blessed be He, protected the houses of his children in Egypt, so that they should not be smitten, as it is said: “The Lord will pass over the door” (Exodus 12.23) (adapted from Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Beshallah Horowitz-Rabin ed. pp. 81-2)
In this midrash, Avraham and Sarah serve for the sages as paradigms of proper Jewish behavior. Their acts in the service of “hakhnasat orkhim” are matched by similar benevolent acts by God for the sake of Avrahamand Sarah’s progeny – measure for measure, plus some! Together, these two messages turn socially conducive behavior into significant and meritorious religious acts which not only serve to bring those involved, both hosts and guests closer to God, but also insure God’s favor.