The Main Thing is Action
It is stated at the beginning of our parsha, after Abraham’s circumcision, “He was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1). Rashi states that Abraham did this in order to see if there were any wayfarers he could invite into his home. The Torah also tells us, “He lifted his eyes and saw…and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent” (v.2).
Why does this verse seem to repeat itself by stating that Abraham ran “from the entrance of the tent”? We’ve already been told that he was sitting there, so it’s obvious that he ran from there to meet them! We may also ask why he ran, since he could have walked to meet them. Above all, we need to understand Abraham’s great courage in putting such tremendous effort into inviting guests to his home.
Our Sages say, “Happy is he who comes here with his learning in his hand” (Pesachim 50a). We should pay careful attention to the precise words the Sages use here. For example, why do they say, “with his learning in his hand” instead of simply “with his learning”? What exactly is the meaning of “in his hand”?
To explain this, we may say that the will to perform, and the actual performance of a mitzvah that results from learning is called “in his hand.” This means that learning and the resulting action are found in the hand – the instrument of action – to perform mitzvot. This is what the Sages mean by the words, “Happy is he who comes here with his learning in his hand.” In other words, it is not enough to simply come with our learning; it must also be in our hand – it must also be accompanied by action – as the Mishnah says: “Not study but practice is the essential thing” (Perkei Avoth 1:17). It is also said that we must “interpret well and act well” (Chagigah 14b; Yebamot 63b). With regards to this subject, our Sages have said: “Study is greater, for it leads to action” (Kiddushin 40b). This means that when a person studies Torah without ulterior motives, it leads to action, for the essential aspect of Torah study and its goal is that a person should carry out what he learns, thereby performing mitzvot. In fact what is the use of studying if a person does not end up performing what he learns? When study is coupled with action, however, a person then carries in his hand the reward for studying and for doing.
Since we have reached this point, we can now explain Abraham’s conduct. The Torah wants to highlight his greatness, for although he was ill at the time, and despite the sweltering heat on that day – since the Holy One withdrew the sun from its sheath (Bava Metzia 86b) – Abraham sat at the entrance of his tent and did not move from there. He did this solely to find wayfarers whom he could welcome into his home as guests.
Furthermore, the Torah mentions “the entrance of the tent” again in v.2, informing us that Abraham remained at the entrance of his tent, not inside, during all that time. Thus despite the great heat he continued to sit there until he saw some wayfarers, at which point he ran to meet them. He made a tremendous effort for his guests, for he desired to emulate his Creator and perform His commandments with great devotion.
Thus Abraham did not remain sitting when the angels arrived, but instead he “stood over them” (Genesis 18:8) in order to better serve and provide them with all they needed. Abraham truly wanted to emulate Hashem, desiring to fulfill the teaching, “Happy is he who comes here with his learning in his hand” – the hand being the instrument of action – for “Not study but practice is the essential thing.”
Abraham’s good deeds stemmed from his learning. He was not content with just studying the Torah; he lived to fulfill it through action, performing mitzvot by practicing kindness and helping others.
We find this idea expressed by the Sages: “Service of Torah scholars is greater than its study” (Berachot 7b). This is because the essential aspect of Torah study is action, doing things for others, as we explained earlier.
Hence it is more important to serve those who study Torah than to study it ourselves. When an action stems from Torah study, we possess both study and action. Study is also very great because it leads to action (Kiddushin 40b), yet action is more important. By serving Torah scholars, one merits both study and action. This occurs among the tzaddikim of this world, for the more they devote their time to others, the more they elevate themselves in the fear of Heaven, and the more they desire to truly emulate their Creator. This is because action, not study, is the essential thing. Which action is this? It consists of showing kindness to others and helping those in need. These things are greater and more important than study itself, since it is through these things that the world endures. As Scripture states, “Olam chesed yibaneh [Kindness builds the world]” (Psalms 89:3). Thus there is great rejoicing before the Creator of the universe when He sees Jews fulfilling the concept that the world is “the work of My hands, that I may be glorified.” (Isaiah 60:21). The more a person demonstrates kindness and performs good deeds, the more he senses the reality of Hashem and elevates himself in Torah and the fear of Heaven.
In every generation, this results from the power of our father Abraham, “the greatest man among the Anakim” (Bereshith Rabba 14:6 and Shemot Rabba 28:1 on Joshua 14:15). Abraham fulfilled the principle by which the main thing is not the thought, but the deed, for he always worked to serve the Torah, to serve guests. He also fulfilled the teaching, “Happy is he who comes here with his learning in his hand.” Every Jew should be attentive to serving those who study Torah, for that is even greater than studying it ourselves. A Jew must also remember that the main thing is not the thought, but the deed. In fact it is not enough to be content with learning; we must also do things for others. If a person acts in this way, he will continually elevate himself in the service of Hashem.