What made Avraham great?
The Lord appeared to Abraham. He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. And he perceived. He hurried from his tent door to meet them…
What did Avraham perceive? He had a huge insight at that moment: Faced with the direct comparison between G-d’s presence and those of other men, Avraham sees that mankind is infused with an element of the divine. This means G-d can connect to us through other people. It was at this moment that the man who discovered G-d Himself realized that there is a divine spark in mankind, that there is the potential in every man to reflect his inner essence, the divine spark that is his soul.
This interpretation may also change our understanding of Avraham’s growth as a person. We know that Avraham’s greatest attribute was welcoming guests, because this passage leads to Avraham and Sarah going to a great deal of trouble to put on a great feast for these men. But perhaps what was really Avraham’s greatest attribute was that the same person who heard G-d’s voice also discovered that G-d is found within mankind – and then, without delay, he changed his behavior on a dime.
Think on this incredible idea. What if Avraham did not chase after potential guests until this very moment? And then, in that moment, he perceived. He understood that G-d, for whom he had changed his life, was reflected in each living person. And in that instant, Avraham grew. He became the very embodiment of chesed, of kindness. Avraham gained a new understanding and he upgraded his behavior right then and there.
If there is any verb that is identified with Avraham, it is this one: “Vayeira” – and he saw, or perceived. Avraham perceived the existence of our Creator, and acted accordingly; he changed his entire life around what he deduced to be true. And Avraham then, years later, perceived at a deeper level, and discovered that G-d can be found in mankind. Then, without delay, he changed. He acted on this new realization, and treated all potential guests like royalty. This is much more than just having the courage of one’s own convictions. This is about living a lifetime with a certain set of logical conclusions based on a set of deduced facts. And then, one day, those facts change, leading to an entirely new set of conclusions. In that moment, Avraham changed his whole life to reflect what he now knew to be true.
Avraham discovers that mankind is, in fact, G-d’s representative in this world. And so we are to learn from Avraham and from the Torah, and treat each person as if they contain a soul from G-d – as indeed they do. This is at the essence of the commandment to welcome guests: we treat even people we have never met before as if they are emissaries from the king of kings. The Torah is telling us that when someone knocks at your door, you should treat them as if they are made in the image of G-d. Because they are.
And if we are to emulate our forefathers, then there is a simple lesson to be learned: when we come to understand that something is true, it is a sign of true greatness when we change ourselves to be consistent with that truth. This ability to change is at the heart of every Jew who grows their relationship with Hashem, because it was at the essence of Avraham our father.