Recently, my children and I were standing in line to order at a restaurant. A boy was standing behind us with another man by him. The boy noticed my son, who was around the same age, and stood next to him. Then the boy asked me, “Can we sit with you for dinner?”
I paused for a second, unsure what to say. I would be happy to sit with them. But if I said yes, I wasn’t sure how the man, who didn’t seem to notice this encounter, would react to having to sit with us. In my momentary pause, the boy got distracted and bounded away.
I felt embarrassed, regretting that I hadn’t immediately said yes. I realized how strong the habits of social engagement are. By approaching complete strangers, the boy broke an unwritten rule of etiquette, which caused me to be momentarily taken aback. How powerful are the invisible boundaries that keep us apart.
In this week’s parsha, Abraham faced a similarly socially awkward situation. The parsha, called Vayera, which means “and he appeared,” begins with God visiting Abraham. Normally, when God appears in the Torah, God comes to impart an important message. However in this parsha, God appeared, and before God could say anything, Abraham saw three men standing nearby. Abraham faced a choice: Should he greet the men and put God on hold or stall the men so he could listen to God.
Abraham didn’t hesitate even for a moment. He ran to greet the men and invited them to his tent for dinner. He became so focused on arranging the preparations for the strangers that he never returned to listen to God’s message. Abraham’s counterintuitive choice was exemplary because, as the Talmud teaches, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.”
During their meal, the three men told Abraham that he and Sarah would soon have a baby.
After eating our dinner, I took my children to the restaurant’s play area, where my son started playing with the boy who had approached us earlier. The boys had no initial awkwardness between them, and I thought about how much more easily children get to know each other than do adults. I commented to the man how cutely the boys were playing together, and we struck up a conversation. He explained to me that his nephew, Buck, was 7 and autistic. Part of Buck’s condition involved not recognizing social boundaries and, as a result, he was an exceptionally outgoing child, far more so than his uncle who always struggled with his own shyness.
In Jewish tradition, there is a blessing that is said when one sees someone with a disability. The formula blesses God for “making God’s creations different.” This blessing always puzzled me; why do we bless God for deformities? However, in this moment, I understood the meaning of this blessing. Buck’s different way of perceiving situations had an important Torah to teach; like Abraham, Buck had demonstrated the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger.
In the parsha, the mitzvah of hospitality is immediately followed by the news of a child to come. Indeed, the two are intricately linked. Children have a special way of bringing people together. (Without the kids, the uncle and I probably never would have spoken.) Young children don’t see the boundaries that separate us as adults. They teach us that such barriers can be traversed. Like Abraham, children help us see God by opening our eyes to each other.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.