Parashat VaYeira

By Rabbi Steve Greenberg

Three tired and hungry travelers are accosted by an old man. He is running, actually limping toward them. He beseeches them to come back with him and to take some nourishment, some food and drink, to rest their feet for a bit in his home. He prepares for them not a snack, but a feast. The story is told like this:

Genesis Chapter 18

And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat at the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood before him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground, 3. And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, please don’t leave your servant; 4. Please, let a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest under the tree; 5. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, so you can eat your fill; after that you shall pass on; for it must be that for this reason you have passed by your servant. And they said, Do as you have said. 6. And Abraham hurried to the tent to Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes. 7. And Abraham ran to the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it to a young man; and he hurried to prepare it. 8. And he took butter, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they ate.

This story of welcome is in our people’s DNA. Abraham sits at the door of his tent. God appears to Abraham but then does not say much about that appearance. Abraham makes out the shapes of three travelers in the distance. He runs to greet them and invite them in for food and drink. Of course, we know the story, they turn out to be three angels sent to him and to Sarah to announce the birth of Isaac and to respond to the cry of Sodom.

It is important to recognize what the text is doing with this juxtaposition. Abraham and Sarah’s tent is set in contrast to the city of Sodom by these two chapters. The two environments are polar opposites. Our parents’ tent, open on four sides is a welcoming oasis; the city of Sodom is a locked fortress. In Sodom, the sages tell us, there are rules designed to keep out undesirables. Itinerant travelers, vagrants, homeless folks are zoned out. Sodom was something like the first gated community. Is only Lot, a nephew of Abraham that is willing to break the law and welcome in guests. 

Abraham and Sarah’s tent is a different world. In Sodom other people’s needs are experienced as an immediate loss. The outsider will make you vulnerable, the hungry will deprive you of what is rightfully yours, in one way or another, you will lose. In Abraham and Sarah’s tent, while there is no opulence, there is plenty. Other people’s needs are the contexts by which we share God’s gifts and bring down blessings upon all. Culturally speaking, welcoming in the stranger is a defining quality of Abraham and Sarah, our father and mother. It is who we are.

However, as defining as welcome is, it is among the most difficult demands made of us as Jews and as people.The broad idea of being a welcoming community has often been portrayed as a simple task, a person at the door of a synagogue with a smile, a few public announcements, a shift of some terminologies or a rainbow sticker and presto…a welcoming congregation. I don’t mean to belittle the efforts of sincere people. Each of these can be very meaningful steps, but the rabbis of the first and second century had a good deal to say about the mitzvah of welcome and they seemed to think that there was nothing easy about this work. There are three ways this work is difficult:

First…it challenges us to shift priorities.

Let’s go back to the primal scene of Abraham and the angels. And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; The easiest way to read this line is as an introduction, a headline of sorts. Something like: “God appears to Abraham at the Oaks of Mamre.” Then when the angels appear in the next verse, we understand that they are how God appeared to Abraham…in the form of three angels. This is the clearest read of the text, however, this is not the choice of the rabbis of the first and second centuries.

They suggest that this line tells us that God independently appeared (in whatever fashion that occurred) to Abraham in a marvelous revelation of presence. In the midst of this experience, Abraham looks up and sees three men traveling in the distance. Rashi takes this rabbinic perspective to heart and suggests that God was visiting Abraham in a neighborly way, as one visits a sick friend. Abraham was recovering from a rather painful operation. He had been commanded just last week to circumcise himself and his whole household. Here God fulfills the mitzvah of bikkur holim and visits Abraham. It must have been an other-worldly experience – the encounter with God’s gracious presence. However, despite his preoccupation, Abraham sees out of the corner of

his eye three figures in the distance. Strangers on the road. He wants the ecstasy of the divine visitation to continue but he feels pulled toward the traveling strangers. Maybe they are tired, thirsty, hungry? It is in this struggle between personal spiritual fulfillment and a stranger’s physical needs that Abraham is tested. This is the scene, the Talmud suggests, that can teach something important about the power of welcoming guests.

BT Shabbat 127a

Rab Judah said in Rab’s name: Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the shechinah, for it is written, And he said, My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, please do not leave….R. Eleazar said: Come and observe how the conduct of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like that of mortals. The conduct of mortals is such that an inferior person cannot say to a greater man, “Wait for me until I return.”

In the case of the Holy One, it is written that Abraham said, “please don’t leave” not to the travelers, but to God. While this rabbinic reading mixes up the sequence, even Rashi who hesitates to complicate texts in this way chooses it. Abraham sees the travelers and turns to God and asks God to wait for him while he takes care of the human beings who may need his help. The conflict is not a paltry one and the answer the tradition offers is

clear. My spiritual needs come second to other people’s physical needs. Moreover, the principle…gedolah hachnasat orchim m’hakabbalat pnai shechinah has other ramifications. Let’s imagine the scene.

Let’s consider for a moment what the most moving, powerful spiritual moment in the life of this community might look like. Consider that some mix of riveting words, rousing music, Torah, prayer, communal joy or teshuvah has coaxed the Shechinah herself to descend from her perch and to alight here in this sanctuary. Imagine the whole place bathed in a light that transformed all despair into hope, all sorrow into joy. Now in the midst of this truly ecstatic moment, there is a quiet, barely heard, knock at the door of the synagogue. A man in a wheelchair has arrived cannot get in. He can only maneuver his chair sideways and knock. The smiling man at the door left his charge when the ecstatic brilliance in the sanctuary drew him away. Who could resist the still small voice of the Shechinah alighting? He continues to knock, but who hears? What does it take to attend to the needs of others in the midst of such an epiphany?

Yes. I know. We need not worry so much about such visitations in our shuls. Some days we’re lucky to get a minyan of Jews to come to shul. The rabbis are not presuming ordinary Shechinah visitations, but they are telling us that people often put their own spiritual needs ahead of taking care of others’ physical needs. It is clear at least for this text, that this is the wrong order of priorities.

This work is hard in two more ways. I will share with you two more sources, one from the rational halakhist and philosopher, Maimonides, and the other from the Midrashic literature to help us to flesh out this challenge of welcome. 

In Maimonides’ description of the many duties of lovingkindness, [gemilut chesed] he first lists all the ways people help each other and he includes the welcoming of guests. However, in the second law, he cites our text, not only in regard to the welcome itself but in regard to completing the welcome by accompanying the traveler a bit on his way. Here are his words:

Rambam Yad, Laws of Mourning, Chapter 14

Law 14:1 It is a positive commandment of the sages to visit the sick, comfort the mourners, carry out the dead, accompany guests on their way, organize the burial of the dead, carry the bier on one’s shoulder, to walk before the casket, to eulogize, dig the plot and bury the dead and likewise, to gladden the bride and groom, and to help them put together their new home. All these are gemilut hasadim accomplished by one’s body and there is no limit to this. Even though all over these specifics are defined by the sages, they are all under the rubric of “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Taking in guests is one of the rabbinic enactments, like dowering a bride and burying the dead. They are not independent mitzvot in the Torah but each of them is a fulfillment of the biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Whatever we would wish done for us, we must do for others. Maimonides, however, adds that taking in guests and especially accompanying them for a bit of their journey, is the greatest mitzvah of them all.

Law 14:2The reward of accompanying (the guest on his journey) is greater than the rest. It is the law that Abraham, our father, established and it is the way of kindness that he practiced—to feed travelers and give them drink and accompany them on their journey. Greater is receiving guests that receiving the Presence of the Shechina, as it says, “And he looked up, and behold, there were three men.” And accompanying them is greater than receiving them. Our sages said: All who do not accompany (the stranger who is your guest) it is as if you spilled blood.”

Why should accompanying guests on the way be so very important? Clearly, there must have been for Maimonides a circumstance of some threat or danger for him to say that failure to accompany is akin to spilling blood! Welcome, it appears, does not end at the door. It is a commitment to walk with vulnerable guests as they emerge from the protection of our homes and enter the public square. Accompaniment announces publicly, “this person I have sheltered continues to be under my protection even now.” It is a bold statement of support and alliance.

In schools today all over America young people are forming gay-straight alliances. It is a way for friends to rally behind the gay kids in school and serve as a shield of sorts. Since every student organization has a teacher who serves as an advisor, it also conveys to students who in the administration are safe. The members of a GSA are not necessarily gay or lesbian, so the group can help young people find support even before they are

ready to come out of the closet. The GSA is both a safe haven as well as a framework for accompanying the gay person on their journey. This is the sort of welcome of guests that Maimonides marks the greatest expression of lovingkindness. It begins privately as we sit in our houses and publicly when we walk by the way. 

Lastly, welcoming guests is an emotionally challenging affair because we are all addicted to familiarity. One of my favorite rabbinic stories of all time is a short account from the Talmud about an overly confident man named Plimo and how the Satan teaches him a lesson. Here is the story:

Plimo used to say every day, “An arrow in Satan’s eyes!” One day, it was the eve of the Day of Atonement, and the Satan disguised himself as a poor man and went and called out at his door, and so bread was taken out to him. The poor man pleaded with Plimo, “On such a day when everyone is inside, shall I be outside?” Thereupon he was taken into the house and bread was offered him. “On a day like this,” he urged, “when

everyone sits at the table, shall I sit alone!” He was led to the table and sat down. As he sat, it was evident that his body was covered with oozing sores and he was behaving repulsively at the dinner table. Plimo rebuked him saying, “Sit properly!” Said the poor man, “Give me a glass [of liquor],” and one was given him. He coughed and spat his phlegm into it. They scolded him, [whereupon] he fainted and died. Later, Plimo’s household heard people crying out, “Plimo has killed a man, Plimo has killed a man!” Fleeing, Plimo hid in an outhouse. The Satan followed him there and Plimo fell before him. Seeing how Plimo was suffering, the Satan disclosed his identity and said to him, “Why have you always spoken this way [saying,‘an arrow in Satan’s eyes!’]?” Then how am I to speak? “You should say, ‘Let the Merciful One rebuke Satan.’” (BT Kiddushin 81a – 81b)

The Satan is surely not a very nice guest. However, this story isn’t about how guests ought to behave. It is a story about what is fundamentally demanded of Plimo, a wealthy homeowner. The poor man at the door is given some bread. OK. This is what we normally do with requests for help. We send a check. We give at a reasonable distance. Now, remember it is Yom Kippur. The poor man wants more and he feels that he is entitled to more than a handout. 

He asks to eat inside and Plimo accommodates him. But on a day such as this, he still wants more. He wants company. To be at the table. To be in a word…included. It is here, at the table that Plimo begins to see the horror that his kindness is leading him towards. He must not have noticed at first. The man is sick, he is uncouth and he is ruining his lovely little Erev Yom Kippur pre-fast dinner. The end of the story is brash. The poor man dies and Plimo is accused of giving him a heart attack with his stern demands and expectations. Plimo is like Adam and Eve hiding from God. Satan finds him huddled on the floor of the public latrine.

Caring for someone whose needs are at the utmost limits of health and control is what people do for their aging parents. The story is about how all our fancy dinner parties are threatened by a life lived in caring for others. We are addicted to familiarity. We tend to be alright with difference…if it behaves. If it goes mostly unnoticed, if it is at the door, in the kitchen, but not at our table and please not in our face. This is what’s hardest about welcome. We are made uncomfortable by the loss of familiarity, unnerved by difference and tend to feel incredibly vulnerable in the face of difficult differences. 

It is not that we do not deserve our lovely dinner parties with our dearest friends and family. It is fair to want to hang with “our people,” to share with “our crowd” a meal, a prayer service, a ritual. There is no sin in liking our group. Moreover, there is nothing wrong with wanting to orchestrate that perfect dinner party. It is just that if we are to be Abraham and Sarah’s kid we must be ready at any moment to hear the knock at the door, to see the strangers at a distance and to interrupt our pleasant conversation, our ecstatic prayer, our festive meal and turn our attention toward someone else’s needs.

The funny things is …as challenging as the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim is…it regularly transforms from a disruption into exquisite pleasure. While the first blush of welcome may entail a sense of loss of something more familiar, once we have moved beyond that feeling, we can discover that difference is thrilling.

The stranger can be the carrier of new inspiration. There are some blessings that come only from the outside of the bubble of our familiar experience, that cannot be imagined until they manifest themselves. It is just this sort of blessing that Sarah and Abraham discovered in the company of their three dusty strangers. 

And it just the sort of blessing that Shabbat tables from Maine to Minnesota can discover on this Shabbat of VaYera. We are grateful to the many hosts who are opening their homes and sharing in Eshel across America. We hope that the borders of our communities will widen in curiosity and joy when we actively shape our homes as Sarah and Abraham’s tent, when we mark our houses with signs of hospitality as visible and as clear as a pink flowering Eshel tree in the desert and when we take the risk to carry our insistence on Abrahamic welcome into our larger communities by offering alliance and support. 

Shabbat shalom