If I am Not for Myself, Who is for Me?

Reading the book of Genesis is always a wonderful and a challenging experience. Every time that I read any part of the Word of God I am challenged, and I always learn something new.

But, Genesis is the sum total of my enlightenment, because every one of the stories that are normally used in churches to entertain the children with “Bible stories” is so full of challenging facts. In fact, I am surprised that these stories are used to teach children in Sunday school, and oftentimes not used to teach the adult Bible studies.

This week is one of these Torah readings, the portion of Vayera, Genesis 18:1-22:24, and the Haftarah reading is from 2 Kings 4:1-37. And from the New Testament the reading that we read is from Luke 26:38, 24:36-53.

The opening statement after which the name of the parasha is taken starts with the word “Vayera”. Vayera is translated into English as “appeared”:

“Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre, as he was sitting in the tent door in the heat of the day.” — Genesis 18:1 [NKJV]

This chapter is a good example of what I wrote earlier. There is Abraham by the oaks of Mamre with his camp, a very large camp with at least 318 men who are trained in war, and are between the age of 20 to 50 years old.

Three strangers appear in Abraham’s camp. These guests are total strangers. He doesn’t know them at all. He welcomes them and with typical Middle Eastern hospitality.

This is what the text says:

“…he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the ground, and said, ‘My Lord, if I have now found favor in Your sight, do not pass on by Your servant. Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh your hearts. After that you may pass by, inasmuch as you have come to your servant.’” — Genesis 18:3-5

My first reaction to this text is that Abraham was not a typical Israeli from the 21st Century. If Abraham was a typical Israeli living in tents in the northern Negev today, he would pull out his gun and tell them to go away, and in a polite but clearly hostile voice ask them to leave, gun in hand.

Today the violence in the Negev desert is so rampant and so out of hand that even the Israeli police and everyone else are uncomfortable with any strangers running around the neighborhoods of the city of Beersheba and the other towns of the northern Negev. But, back to our text…

Abraham with such untypical humility welcomes these three strangers by humbling himself with the words:

“If I have now found favor in Your sight… Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.” — Genesis 18:3,4

As a child I had the privilege of going with my father to the northern Negev desert to visit (for my father to do business with) Sheik Soleman of the Negev. Sheik Soleman was one of the most important sheiks of the Bedouin Arabs in the whole land of Israel.

He welcomed my father, not like a supper guest, but like an emissary of the Israeli government. Yes, there was coffee served within a few minutes of our arrival, and food was served after a few hours — a whole baby lamb served over a mountain of rice laced with nuts.

Back to Abraham. The important lesson for me was that Abraham and Sarah themselves did the service, and they themselves welcomed these three total strangers. This is why the book of Hebrew says:

“Let brotherly love continue. Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.” — Hebrews 13:1,2 [NKJV]

It is clear that the writer of the book of Hebrews is referring to our portion of the Torah and encouraging hospitality. In fact, being hospitable is one of the qualifications of being an elder in the church.

“A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach…” — 1 Timothy 3:2

“…but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled…” — Titus 1:8

“Be hospitable to one another without grumbling.” — 1 Peter 4:9

The texts from 1 Timothy 3 and from Titus 1 are from the qualifications for anyone who wants to be an elder/bishop in the Lord’s church. This is important nowadays because of the modern western culture that has overtaken the body of disciples of Yeshua worldwide. Hospitality is at a premium and not as common as it was in the early 1960’s when I was a young 16-year-old homeless believer.

I can honestly say that my brothers and sisters in the Lord in the early 1960’s were more than hospitable. In fact, I can witness to the fact that even Jewish people who were not believers in Yeshua, just regular Orthodox Jews, were super-friendly and hospitable to me.

The first suit of clothing that I had in the USA was purchased by a dear Methodist sister who lived in southern Kentucky. The second suit that was for winter was purchased for me by two Jewish religious brothers who ran a rag and wool business in Cookeville, Tennessee. I managed to offend them and challenged them to make Aliyah (immigration to Israel), and in response to my typical Israeli hutzpah they took me to the local department store and bought me my first winter suit. I would say that hospitality is one of the more important qualifications for someone who wants to lead Jews and Arabs to the Lord.

Let me pass the hospitality of Abraham and get to the theological side of our Torah portion. Abraham didn’t recognize the fact that one of his three guests is the Lord Himself.

This is a major challenge, for me personally and for most of the Jewish commentators of the Torah. Just accept it and ignore the problem, and essentially agree and confirm that God (Jehovah) Himself came down in the flesh and had His feet washed and ate butter and meat, and talked to Abraham, and allowed Abraham to challenge God’s morality when God revealed to Abraham His plan to destroy Sodom.

Abraham challenged the Lord Himself with the following words:

“Abraham came forward and said, ‘Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?’” — Genesis 18:23

If I would dare to translate the words of Abraham to the Lord Himself: “Are you crazy man? You are going to kill the innocent, the cool brothers, with those bad bad dudes?”

The most wonderful thing, dear brothers and sisters, is that the challenge that Abraham put before the Lord was accepted by God, and God modified His action toward Sodom, and was willing to hear Abraham’s righteous challenge. But, because Abraham argued with God about Sodom, but didn’t argue with God concerning the sacrifice of his son Isaac, but just went on with God’s command without putting up a fight to save his son Isaac, the rabbis think that God just ignored Abraham completely after Genesis 22.

Abraham was too obedient, too compliant, too religious, and just followed instruction and took his son of promise Isaac, tied him on the altar, and lifted up his knife, ready to carry out God’s command. Yes, God sent the ram and saved Isaac, but Abraham had this blind, trusting faith in God, and unlike in the situation with Sodom, he just took God’s command blind and obedient.

God just stopped communication with Abraham from chapter 22, until Abraham’s death. I realize that this is a rabbinical idea of why God stopped His communication with Abraham after the sacrifice of Isaac, but it is an interesting observation that communication between Abraham and the Lord, the Master of the Universe, just stopped.

What can we learn from this Torah portion:

First, God can put on flesh and appear without doubt as a normal man, who needs to have his feet washed and take food.

Second, God takes into consideration His righteous servants and shares with them His plans, the plans that would affect them personally and affect the community of the saints.

Third, God appreciates and sometimes even hears (listens) to His righteous servants, and takes their comments seriously. At times God actually modifies His actions. This happened twice with Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, and it happened with Elijah and the widow from Lebanon, and it happened in this case with Abraham.

What we need to learn and appropriate from this story is that we, too, as children of God who have the acquired righteousness that comes from Yeshua’s life and sacrifice, can and ought to be able to talk to God and argue with Him respectfully, but in the end accept and receive His wise judgment.

This ought to change drastically the way Messianic Jews, and some Christians, pray, and make our prayers and our requests from the Almighty a meaningful conversation and an honest dialogue between ourselves, His creatures, His children, and our Heavenly Father.

Fourth, faith and faithfulness are of great importance, and Abraham proved this when he took his son Isaac up to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him. But, blind faith that is held and sometimes performed without the use of our minds and without thinking it through and without consideration for others around us, might not be appreciated and accepted by the Almighty God of Israel or by His Son, Yeshua.

We are only faithful in our actions and faith when we do things mindfully with full awareness of what we are doing and why we are doing it. God doesn’t need or want robots, He wants children who are able to think things through and make relational and purposeful decisions.

Finally, the events around Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac are some of the more complicated to share and explain to the current TikTok generation… The way that I have discovered to share this event is through the stories of the superheroes, like Superman and Spider-Man, and the rest of the Hollywood myths.

The long-term good of the world and the human race is something that we, as individuals and our families, ought to care about and even sacrifice ourselves for. For me personally it is not a question of religion at all, it is a question of being committed to do all that is in our power for the greater God.

The famous rabbinical statement from the Tractate Avot in the Mishnah is translated to English like this:

“Hillel used to say: (1) ‘If I am not for myself, who is for me? (2) And when I am for myself, what am I? (3) And if not now, when?’” — Tractate Avot 1:14

The idea behind Hillel’s statement is that our life means nothing if we are selfish and live only for ourselves. Yes, we ought to take care of ourselves and our own, first and foremost, but if that is all that we are going to contribute in our lives, then what is the difference between us, as human beings, as children of God, as children of Abraham?

We would be no better than an animal, and most of the animals would be better than us as human beings. Animals kill to eat and survive or to defend themselves, but we as human beings kill for money, jealousy, hate, pleasure (we hunt animals and pay much money for licenses for this dubious “pleasure”)…

Our father Abraham becomes the supreme example of faith and obedience to the Almighty God. And the ultimate sacrifice of the son of God’s promise to him, he was willing to offer, with a deep faith that even if he offered Isaac they would return home alive and safe. This is what Abraham said to his servants who were keeping the donkeys:

“And Abraham said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; the lad and I will go yonder and worship, and we will come back to you.’” — Genesis 22:5 [NKJV]

Notice that Abraham said to his servants: “and we will come back to you!” Realizing that even if he obeyed God with this impossible and outrageous command to sacrifice the one son of promise on whose shoulders all the promises of God depend, God would raise him back from the dead and keep His promises.

So, yes, dear brothers and sisters, if we live only thinking of ourselves and ours, and don’t have the heart of God to care and at least pray for our nations, and churches, and synagogues, and the larger family, and just the people of our cities, and the leadership of our countries, what are we?

What kind of human animals would we be if we trusted God to redeem us and present us with an eternity where there is no illness or death, suffering, or hate, and then turn around here on God’s good earth and care only for ourselves and our families?

“If I am not for myself, who is for me? And when I am for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” — Tractate Avot 1:14

God give us the eyes to see through His Word in the text of the Bible, but much more through His living Word, Yeshua the Messiah, who became the Word of God in the flesh.

This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.