God is an Open Door: Commentary on Vayyera 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary

Judaism sanctifies life’s liminal moments—those times when we stand on the border of two realities. At a baby naming, an already-Jewish child becomes contextualized as more than a Jewish individual: a member of a covenantal community. Though we know that a 13-year old is a minor in many modern cultures, a bat mitzvah or bar mitzvah ceremony affirms Jewish adulthood in the religious legal lives of tweens. While the rituals of a Jewish wedding focus on a not-yet-married couple, both of these celebrants are a far cry away from being single during the service.

We build spiritual practices around those ‘in-between’ moments. Recognizing ‘in-between’ places however requires of us to encounter the stories that take place on the borders of two locations. The boundary, far more than a dividing line, can be the setting of a sacred story.

This week’s Torah portion Vayyera begins with Abraham catching sight of the Divine (Genesis 18:1) and, eventually, three angelic ‘people’ as well (18:2). When the reader encounters Abraham in the first verse here, Abraham is sitting “פֶּתַח־הָאֺהֶל” (petach ha’ohel)—a strange phrase meaning “opening of the tent.” Thousands of years ago, some proofreader could have noted that people don’t “sit opening of the tent” (as our text has it!), but people can “sit at the opening of the tent.” It seems, however, that whoever authored these holy words really wanted the reader to take careful note of this phrase petach ha’ohel. In the next verse, Abraham runs after these angelic beings “מִפֶּתַח־הָאֺהֶל” (mippetach ha’ohel, “from the opening of the tent”). Mostly through ordering around his wife Sarah, plus some unnamed youth, Abraham prepares a feast for his guests (18:2–8). Just as Abraham had rushed to greet his guests (18:2), Abraham runs quickly “הָאֹהֱלָה” (ha’ohelah, “to the tent [itself]”), where he finds Sarah (18:6). When he comes back to the guests sitting and noshing beneath a tree (18:8), they ask him where Sarah is, and Abraham incorrectly answers, “בָאֹֽהֶל” (va’ohel, “in the tent”) (18:9). Sarah’s exact location is harder to peg down evidently because she, it turns out, had been listening, petach ha’ohel, to the angels’ conversation with Abraham (18:10). It feels good to be an insider and to be included, but, when the action is outdoors and the obligations are indoors, Sarah stakes the opening of the tent as a safe space for her combined senses of responsibility and curiosity. It is at petach ha’ohel that an elderly Sarah hears from the Divine voice that her elderly spouse Abraham and she will soon become parents (18:10–15). It is at this tent opening where Abraham saw Divinity and, at this tent opening, where Sarah heard the Divine.

This threshold is a liminal space. The Zohar equates the tent opening with “פתחא מתתא לעילא” (pitcha mittata le’eyla, “an opening from below to above”) (I:21a), an entry point from the less-holy to the holier. Lazing in the sun is not virtuous, but we can perform an act of piety by situating ourselves at the spot where we can maximize our potential for הַכְנָסַת אוֹרֽחִים (hakhnasat orechim, “welcoming guests”).

Abraham’s open-door policy—sitting at the entrance—made space for kindness to flow from his very sense of sight. As Abraham took the chance to aid these strangers, Sarah heard a divine voice. The tent’s entrance became a site of both lovingkindness and revelation.

If we seek God in our lives, or love in our hearts, let us be ready at an open door.