The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40-plus-year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
Mazal tov to Rabbi Ari and Devora Chait on the birth of Eliyahu Dov. Mazal tov to grandparents Mrs. Suri Fink, Rabbi and Mrs. Chait and great-grandparents Rabbi and Mrs. Moshe Rapps and Mr. and Mrs. Isaac Fink.
Our parshah opens with G-d visiting Abraham on the third day after his circumcision. Abraham noticed three travelers in the distance and ran toward them. He asks them to be his guests, offers them food and respite so they can rest from their travels before resuming their journey. He implores them to accompany him back to his tent. The Gemara (Shavuot 35b) offers two opinions as to the intent behind the word A-D-O-N-Y that Abraham uses when he addressed the travelers. The first interpretation says the word is chol, it does not have the properties of one of the special names of G-d which require special procedures on the part of a scribe writing a Torah scroll. Instead the word has the sanctity like any other word in the Torah, and Abraham employed it as a term of honor in addressing his prospective guests. The second opinion says it is kodesh, sanctified, referring to G-d, as Abraham asked G-d to wait for him while he attended to his guests. In either case, at first glance the episode seems odd. Why did Abraham suspend his conversation with G-d, King of Kings, simply to accommodate what he perceived as human travelers, ostensibly people whom he had no connection to?
The Mishna and Gemara (Brachot 13a) discuss the laws pertaining to how an individual reciting Kriat Shma must act when greeting another person. If he is in the middle of one of the paragraphs of Kriat Shma, he may initiate a greeting or respond to a greeting from a person he fears might threaten his life due to a perceived insult. Between the paragraphs of Kriat Shma, he may initiate or respond to a greeting from anyone. Kriat Shma differs from the Amidah; in the latter, one may interrupt himself only under very strict conditions, regardless if he is in the middle of a blessing or between blessings. Why is Kriat Shma different?
In addition to Kabbalat Ol Malchut Shamayim, acceptance of the heavenly yoke, Kriat Shma includes Kabbalat Ol Mitzvot, accepting the obligation to fulfill G-d’s commandments. G-d’s commandments contain laws that apply between man and G-d as well as laws regulating interpersonal behavior. One cannot accept one group of commandments while rejecting the other. The interpersonal group includes laws that emphasize the dignity of all G-d’s creation, especially that of a fellow human being, kavod habriyot. How incongruous would it appear if after accepting the twin yokes of heaven and the commandments, one ignored his fellow human being and did not greet him appropriately, possibly causing him embarrassment. The Rav, zt”l, said in the name of the Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, that the laws regarding greeting a fellow human being during the recitation of Kriat Shma are not optional. One must greet another person between the chapters of Kriat Shma. We see from here yet another example of how Judaism values the dignity and feelings of a fellow human being.
Abraham’s actions in asking G-d to wait while he attended to his potential guests are understandable when viewed from the perspective of, and emphasis on, human dignity. Abraham, like any individual reciting Kriat Shma standing before G-d and accepting the yoke of heaven and mitzvot, felt the necessity to interrupt his conversation with G-d and attend to the needs and dignity of the travelers. After they departed he resumed his conversation with G-d.
Perhaps G-d’s approval of Abraham’s emphasis of kavod habriyot can be found in the subsequent verses (Genesis 18:19). G-d states that “Abraham will father a great nation…. For I know him that he will command his children and household that follow him, and they will keep the way of G-d to perform charity and judicial righteousness.” Abraham’s conduct toward the travelers was a shining example of selfless concern and caring by one individual for another. The Torah testifies that Abraham will undoubtedly transmit the dual values of kavod shamayim, fear and respect for Hashem, and kavod habriyot to his descendants.