Abraham receives a special visitor in his home. Three days after the painful procedure of circumcision, God comes to visit Abraham. What does God say to Abraham? What is His message at this significant time?
Strangely, the verse only says that God ‘appears’ to Abraham (Genesis 18:1). There is no command. No message. We find no words spoken. The verse simply describes God as ‘appearing’ to his beloved Abraham.
So what is God doing? Medieval commentator Rashi answers: God appears to him in order to visit the sick.
Abraham is in need. He is in pain so God comes to see him; to simply sit at his bedside, to provide him with companionship.
God’s visit to Abraham tells of no divine message. No laws revealed. No promises of the future. However, an indispensable message is taught. Explains Rabbi Soloveitchik: God was simply there with him as a friend. In the beautiful words the Rav: “ If two individuals are close friends, sharing a sense of intimacy and companionship, one need not have a message to deliver…the highest form of friendship does not require words.”
Being there for another person in need often does not require finding the right words to say; it simply requires being there. When we physically sit by the side of a friend who is in pain or is suffering, this alone shows that we care. By being present, we let the other know that we empathize with their painful situation. What a difference this can make to the one undergoing hardship and suffering, who feels often feels forsaken and isolated.
Jewish law, or halacha, considers the mitzvah (commandment) of visiting a mourner to be one of the most sacred. Jewish law recommends that the visitor remain silent and allow the mourner to express their feelings and their thoughts. The halacha is well aware of the lesson learned from God’s visit to Abraham. Being present is an essential component – possibly the most essential component – in bringing comfort and hope to the bereaved, who often feel alone in their sorrow.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach captures this teaching with a moving Hasidic story:
A man once came to the Holy Reb Yitzhak Vorker, one of the great Hasidic masters, and he cried, “Rebbe, I’m mamash desperate, really desperate. My child is so sick, he may even be dying God forbid! Rebbe, I’m begging you, please pray for my son to get well.”
The Vorker sat very still. He closed his eyes and swayed back and forth for a while. Then he looked at the Yiddele, the simple Jew, and said sadly, “I’m so sorry to tell you, but all the Gates of Heaven are closed so tightly there’s nothing I can do to open them. I’m sorry but you might as well go home.”
The father buried his head in his hands and began to sob. But what could he do? He climbed back on his wagon and started out on his way back home, crying the whole time. He had been traveling for about a half hour when suddenly he heard the sound of another wagon chasing after him. He turned around. It was the holy Vorker himself! The Rebbe pulled up beside the Yiddele. “Stop your wagon here,” he said. “I have something to say to you.” They reigned in their horses, the Vorker Rebbe helped the father down from the wagon, and they sat together on the grass by the side of the road.
“After you left,” the Rebbe went on, “I couldn’t stop thinking about you and your son. You were so, so sad and it mamash broke my heart. Then I realized… I may not be able to help your son, but at least I can cry with you.” And the Rebbe put his arm around the Yiddele, bowed his holy head, and began to sob from the deepest depths of his heart. To his surprise, the father realized that the Rebbe was crying harder for his son than he himself had ever cried for anything in his own life. So the father started sobbing even more. The two men sat crying together for a long time.
Suddenly the Rebbe lifted his head, wiped away his tears, and he smiled. The man turned to the Rebbe and asked, “What is it?” The Rebbe said, “Something amazing has just happened… the Gates in Heaven have suddenly opened!”
Often, there is little we can say or do to change the challenging circumstances that others face. The amazing meeting of God and Abraham teaches that our presence and empathy is so important. It is an act of compassion that offers a fellow soul solace and hope.
Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider served as rabbi of the Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation and is the author of the popular Passover Haggadah “The Night that Unites”.