Genesis Resting Beneath the Tree
In Parshat Vayera, we meet Abraham resting near the entrance of his tent. He notices three weary travelers approaching, and he runs to greet them, with no regard for the intense heat of the day (as one midrash tells us)–or the fact that he is still healing after having circumcised himself as a part of his covenant with God. “Rest beneath the tree” (Genesis 18:4), Abraham implores the visitors, enjoining them to tarry for a while and restore themselves after their journey through the scorching desert. This remarkable act of hospitality, rabbinic tradition tells us, exemplifies Abraham’s great compassion and generosity.
Rabbi Dov Baer, the great Maggid of Mezritch, one of the early Hasidic masters, finds another important spiritual lesson in this story. The “tree” under which Abraham’s guests take refuge is none other than the Tree of Life—the divine name Y-H-V-H from which all expressions of life branch out. This same Tree is the one from the Garden of Eden, a metaphor for the Torah itself, whose lush and verdant text we are called upon to cultivate until new insights sprout forth.
In this formulation, Abraham is reminding his guests that the physical realm holds much more than meets the eye. “Resting beneath the tree” means to realize that everything in the world is an expression of the divine Presence, for God’s most sacred name shimmers just “beneath” its surface. This, says the Maggid, was one of Abraham’s great contributions, in the spiritual realm–he lovingly taught people to look at their lives and the world around them in a more profound and sensitive manner.
The Maggid’s teaching about gazing at the heart of all things, not their external shells, operates on at least three levels in this passage. First, in our story, Abraham cannot plainly see that his visitors are actually angels dressed in the form of humans. If indeed he knows that they are otherworldly beings, it must be because he has sensed their ethereal nature through his own insight.
Second, this tale itself is not simply a descriptive story of Abraham’s meritorious deeds, but a sublime spiritual lesson expressed in narrative form. All stories in the Torah, including those about the patriarchs, matriarchs, and their families, are like textual garments that clothe the spiritual insights hidden within them.
Third, the Maggid would ask us to apply this way of thinking to the world around us as well, and to our own lives. His teaching calls us to examine even seemingly ordinary moments, and to sense how holiness and The Divine dwell within them.
Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhensk, an early Hasidic master and disciple of the Maggid, offers a teaching with a related message on the very next verse: “I will bring you bread, to strengthen your hearts; then you will go on” (Genesis 18:5). Elemelech reads this passage entirely in keeping with its plain sense—through the simple act of feeding his guests with love and friendship, Abraham opens up their hearts and uplifts them. “Then you will go on” means that his visitors can now bring some of this blessing to the people that they will encounter as well. A single act of transformative kindness is thus magnified and multiplied many times over. Again, there is more to what is going on than meets the eye.
Perhaps we can read these different but related teachings as two stages in a single process. The first step is cultivating a rich inner world. This happens through learning to examine the hidden nature of Torah and look at the world around us in new ways, seeing past stories and physical objects along with the infinite well of Being within them. But the next step of passing on this gift to other people is no less important. This was Abraham’s true offering to the angels; after feeding and teaching them, he sent them off as agents of compassion and holiness.
Just imagine if the inhabitants of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, whose callousness and hard-heartedness were known far and wide, had been open to receiving this blessing. The tragic events of the later chapters of this parashah, in which the two cities were destroyed because God could not even identify 10 righteous people within them,might have been very different indeed.
These passages articulate a number of lessons for us as well. From the perspective of Abraham, we must remember that we are called upon to look at the world and at the Torah with new eyes, always striving to reach that which is “beneath” the surface—and to teach others to do so. From the point of view of the angels, we must learn to open our hearts to the teachers we encounter. Sometimes they stand before us in a classroom, but often they are simply the people who help us at the different stages in our journey. In all cases, we should remember that all students can become teachers. The heart of our task is to look deeply and share what we learn, and to let ourselves be inspired by all our potential teachers and pass on what we receive from them, as participants in a never-ending cycle of learning and teaching.
Ariel Evan Mayse is completing his doctorate in Jewish Studies at Harvard University, and studying for rabbinic ordination at Beit Midrash Harel in Jerusalem. His forthcoming dissertation is entitled “Beyond the Letters: The Question of Language in the Teachings of R. Dov Baer of Mezritch. A long-time student of Jewish mysticism, he teaches Hasidic thought and theology in Jerusalem, where he lives with his wife and son. In addition to several popular and scholarly articles on kabbalah and Hasidism, he is co-editor of the two-volume Speaking Torah: Spiritual Teachings From Around the Maggid’s Table (Jewish Lights, 2013), and editor of the recent From the Depth of the Well: An Anthology of Jewish Mysticism (Paulist Press, 2014).