In a portion filled with several significant, violent events, Vayeira opens with a peaceful story of Abraham welcoming three travelers. This incident illustrates, and maybe, introduces the important Jewish tradition of HOSPITALITY.
This is truly a parsha of extremes. We read about three of the most disturbing incidents in Torah: First, Sodom and Gomorrah – Second, the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael … after the birth of Isaac, Sarah sees the boys in conflict and asks Abraham to expel Hagar and her son, Ishmael. from their household. By sending them into the desert, it is almost surely a death sentence… and Third, the binding, or near sacrifice of Isaac.
And … there are also peaceful events that are also considered of importance…. At the start of the parsha Abraham welcomes three strangers and gives us a strong message illustrating the importance of hospitality. Although there are not any laws forcing people to be hospitable, it is an important factor in this week’s text … and one of the major traditions of Judaism.
I don’t know whether this tradition predated the incidents of this parsha … Or resulted because of them. In either case, this week I am going to focus on hospitality at the time of Abraham.
This week’s reading opens with Abraham sitting at his tent’s entrance recuperating from his circumcision from last week’s text. He sees three men approaching… and, in his pain, he leaps to welcome them He offers them comfort, washes their feet, and has Sarah prepare food for them.
Abraham is totally involved in providing comfort for others…. HOSPITALITY. This hospitality is especially important … as is helping the poor, orphans, and homeless… because in this desert environment much needed food, water, and shelter may not be readily available.
Abraham does not realize these three men are messengers of God to inform him that Sarah is going to have a baby.
Later in the parsha we have an example of a total lack of hospitality… and the reaction of God to this situation. ….. The Eternal sees the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and sends two angels to warn Lot of the impending destruction of these two cities. Lot welcomes the two strangers (angels) …. But the reaction of town’s citizens is different, “They (strangers/angels) had yet to lie down when the people of Sodom, young and old alike, all the people, from every side, gathered around the house and called to Lot, saying, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out so we can have them.” (Gen.19:4-5) In case you didn’t know, “so we can have them” is a reference to rape … and this would have been the case whether the strangers were male or female.
The town’s people were only interested in self … this ranged from the accumulation of possessions, to the fulfillment of all self-desires. Tales from Midrash provide more examples of this behavior. They state that laws were passed that forbid any person from offering kindness or hospitality to strangers, the poor, or the helpless. One story even went as far as stating that the punishment for giving bread to the beggar was death by a public burning. Other stories state that Lot only brought visitors to his house at night so the town’s people would not be aware. The stories also note that Lot’s wife, unlike Sarah, refused to cook or care for these strangers. It was for these reasons that God destroyed these towns.
When God told Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed. Abraham became concerned about the righteous in those communities and bargained with God to spare them. The bargaining ends with an agreement that, if ten righteous people are found, the cities would be spared.
This number of ten righteous persons carried over to the principle of Rabbis that, if one can’t find ten religious based people in a town, one should move away. This number ten also is the basis for a minyon… or the minimum required for traditional prayer services.
The acts of self-centered thinking are continued well into the parsha. God tells Lot not to look back at the city once he and his family leave. Lot’s wife is so much a part of the city that she can’t leave without looking back. As a result she is turned into a pillar of salt and destroyed with the rest of the area’s population.
Later Lot’s two daughters, thinking of their own desires, perceive that upon leaving their homes, they will never find mates. So, even though they know it is wrong, they have sexual relations with their father to ensure that they will have babies and carry on the family’s line.
Even though the story of the near sacrifice of Isaac receives the most attention in this week’s parsha, in many respects the concept of hospitality, also featured in this parsha, may have a greater effect upon traditional Jewish values.
Image titled “Man gives welcome gesture” by Kjnnt is from FreeDigitalPhotos.net