By Rav David Silverberg
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 39) tells that Avraham traveled about in his home country of Aram, he saw people “going about recklessly, eating and drinking.” He then uttered a prayer that he should not have any portion of that land. Later, upon reaching the border of Canaan, he saw people “engaged in weeding at the time of weeding, and in hoeing at the time of hoeing.” He then prayed for a share of that land, whereupon God promised that the entirety of Canaan is being given to him and his descendants. The Midrash here teaches that Avraham was impressed by the sense of responsibility and work ethic displayed by the people of Canaan, which contrasted sharply with the carefree and mindless lifestyle of the people of Aram.
On the basis of this Midrash, Rav Yehuda Altusky (Hegyonei Yehudi, vol. 5, p. 146) suggested an explanation for Rashi’s famous comments later, in Parashat Vayera (18:4), describing the angels who visited Avraham’s tent. Citing the Midrash, Rashi writes that the angels disguised themselves as members of a tribe that “bow to the dust on their feet,” thus prompting Avraham to offer them water to rinse their feet. Many have raised the question of what exactly it means to worship “dust on their feet.” Rav Altusky suggested reading this description allegorically, as referring to overreliance on agriculture and shepherding. The dust accumulated on the people’s feet symbolized their hard work and long hours in the fields or with the herds. As Avraham noted, the people of Canaan admirably approached their pursuits with responsibility and seriousness. Apparently, however, they went too far, according too much importance to their work, to the point where they could be described as “bowing” to their work rather than to the Almighty. Rav Altusky adds that this might be at least part of the reason why Avraham so warmly welcomed the three wayfarers. While he obviously objected to their “worship” of the “dust on their feet,” he admired and respected their work ethic.
If so, then these two Midrashic passages remind us of the need to admire and respect the positive qualities of even those with views and practices to which we strongly object. Avraham mistook these three angels for idolaters, yet this did not blind him to their virtues which deserve respect. Even as we reject and oppose ideas and actions, we must still identify the admirable characteristics that we can appreciate and seek to emulate.
Originally appears on VBM