First Seeing, Then Understanding: A Reflection on Parshat Vayera by Rabbi Sarah | Camp Ramah Northern California

First Seeing, Then Understanding: A Reflection on Parshat Vayera by Rabbi Sarah

Abraham runs to the edge of his tent.  He spots three messengers approaching.  Then he gazes up at them and greets them.  In doing so, Abraham creates a timeless model for the practice of hachnasat orchim, or welcoming guests, that informs how we welcome others into our synagogues, our homes, and into our lives. But wait — why does the Torah tell us that Abraham looked twice when he greeted the guests, and what might this teach us about true hospitality?

The verse from the book of Genesis reads:

וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּה֙ שְׁלֹשָׁ֣ה אֲנָשִׁ֔ים נִצָּבִ֖ים עָלָ֑יו וַיַּ֗רְא וַיָּ֤רָץ לִקְרָאתָם֙ מִפֶּ֣תַח הָאֹ֔הֶל וַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה׃

Lifting his eyes, Abraham saw three men standing near him. He saw them and ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and bow to the ground (Genesis 18:2).

If the Torah indeed spares us of any unnecessary repetitions, then this repetition of the Hebrew work vayar, meaning “Abraham saw,” must have meaning in its redundancy.  Indeed, the 11th century French Commentator Rashi explains that vayar is repeated twice to indicate that at first Abraham “saw” the messengers, and then he “understood” them.  Rashi explains that this second looking was not about seeing who they were, but understanding that they had come not as a threat but rather in peace.

What does it take to move from merely seeing to truly understanding those around us?

This question catapults me back to the first day of camp last June, a day of hachnasat orchim on steroids (or more accurately, on upbeat Israeli dance songs and explosive counselor enthusiasm)!  Our staff spends a week preparing for this moment:  we train, we memorize lists  of names and faces, we prepare food, we make welcome signs, we run to greet families.  

It had only been 30 minutes into the drop off window that first day when I witnessed a camper running in front of the hadar ochel with a huge smile and yelling the words “I made a new friend!”  Sure enough, right behind her stood her smiling roommate and counselors, as excited and inspired as she was to have made such an immediate and deep connection.  

I have been thinking about this moment a lot since camp, especially when I see so many of us – teens, adults, and even kids – communicating with each other through text messages and screens.  Abraham’s actions are powerful not only because they set a precedent for “running towards” newcomers, but also because they invite us to open ourselves to a deeper level of seeing the people we encounter.  At camp we have the unique opportunity to see one another other and become fast, intense friends in an environment with little technology and lots of welcoming.  There is no email tone to understand, no hidden messages, no barriers, just ourselves.

As one camper parent described the drop off experience at camp: “I appreciate the sense of community immediately upon our arrival to camp. There was definitely a sense of caring, belonging and acceptance among the staff and campers. Such a welcoming place… as difficult as it was for me to drop off my kids for the first time, I knew full well they were at a wonderful, supportive and loving place where they would grow both spiritually and socially!”

On this Shabbat, may we all have the experience of encountering others in unique and unencumbered ways so that we can come to understand where those around us are coming from, and we can ourselves come to be known, to be welcomed, and to be loved.


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Sarah Shulman

Camp Director, Ramah Galim