A Moment of Torah with Rabbi Neil Sandler
By Rabbi Neil Sandler
Have you ever been in a position where a person you greatly respect defers to you? How about this–You are sitting on a bus when an elderly individual you recognize walks by. You stand up so that he may sit down. But the elderly individual looks in your face, recognizes you and says, "I can't take your seat. That would be disrespectful of me." Even if you have never had such an experience, you can imagine how odd it would seem. According to Rashi, the medieval commentator, Abraham had this kind of awkward experience with the Holy One at the beginning of our parsha.
In the opening verse of the Torah Portion, we read:
The Lord appeared to (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot (Genesis 18:1).
Rashi notes that the Hebrew word for "sitting" can also be vocalized as "sat," a seemingly insignificant difference in tense, but one that he interprets in a very interesting and challenging way:
Abraham tried to get up, but the Holy One reassured him, "Sit and I will stand."
Consider this practically unimaginable image which Rashi presents. From last week's parsha, we know that Abraham is in great pain following his circumcision. We can only imagine that as the day grows hotter, Abraham's discomfort grows. In an attempt to gain some relief, he sits. Up to this point, everything is understandable and just fine. What happened next? God, the Sovereign of sovereigns, stops by to pay Abraham and Sarah a visit. Can you imagine this scene? God is right there in front of Abraham! Abraham does what anyone would do if one saw the Holy One standing in front of her while she was seated. Abraham stood up! Immediately, God said to Abraham, "Sit and I will stand."
It's not difficult to understand why Abraham, despite his physical discomfort, stood up when the Holy One entered. But what motivated God to tell Abraham to sit while God stood? One possible answer rests upon the Holy One's compassion and caring for all of the divine creations. God could see that Abraham was in physical pain for reasons related to God's instructions (i.e., circumcision). Therefore, the Holy One decided that deference to the divine should be set aside in favor of Abraham's comfort.
I think there is at least one other way to understand Rashi's comment, and it is both interesting and challenging. The Holy One knew Abraham. The Holy One knew about Abraham's faithfulness and readiness to fulfill the divine demands. As the Sodom and Gomorrah episode would soon prove, the Holy One knew that Abraham's concern for people and their just treatment was of paramount importance to Abraham. Abraham was a unique individual. Consequently, when God came to visit, the Holy One showed Abraham divine respect by shockingly standing while Abraham sat.
What makes Rashi's understanding of Abraham's sitting while God stands both interesting and challenging is its application to our own lives. Please lay aside a literal understanding of the opening of our Torah Portion and Rashi's interpretation of it. These are images that convey messages; in this case, I think, an image of the ideal. Abraham is far from perfect. He clearly has some shortcomings. Yet, my understanding of Rashi's words suggests that Abraham is someone we ought to seek to emulate, as I described in the preceding paragraph. Imagine the Holy One entering your house and telling you to remain seated while God remained standing before you. Can each of us seek to live a life worthy of such an image?