Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24)
(Translated from the Hebrew original)
Parshat Vayera begins with a story that provides a glimpse into life in the time of the Torah. Avraham Avinu is sitting at the entrance to his tent, feeling somewhat unwell. He had recently circumcised himself, as God had commanded him to do, at the age of 99, and consequently, he needs a few days to recuperate.
Suddenly, he spots three unfamiliar men (according to one commentary, these were idol-worshippers). Ignoring his pain, Avraham runs up to them and beseeches them to enter his tent, bathe themselves, rest, and eat something. Then, after they finish eating, the focus of the plot shifts: we soon learn that these three men are actually messengers of the Almighty, and had come to inform Avraham of the impending birth of his son, Yitzhak.
These two stories are seemingly unrelated. One story reveals the immense love Avraham felt for fellow human beings, and his passion to deal kindly with them. Despite his age and status, he doesn’t consider going out of his way to host a few unknown nomads below his dignity, He had rejected all of the idol worship that was commonplace for his time, choosing to worship the God of Israel instead. Nevertheless, he opens his home to anyone who wishes to come to him, regardless of religion or worldview, and our rabbis learn in a Midrash that he even extended his hospitality to guests who appeared to be bowing down to the dust of their feet.
The second story, which immediately follows the first, is of angels informing Avraham that he will have a son within the coming year.
Couldn’t Avraham have been notified of his son’s birth without prefacing this with the story of Avraham’s hospitality? Avraham was already notified of the decision concerning the birth of his son in the previous parsha. Why, then, did the Torah decide to link these two stories?
Hospitality is a core value in the Jewish People’s tradition of “gemilut chasadim” – acts of kindness. Sometimes, we mistakenly believe that this mitzvah is now obsolete. There are those who believe that in Biblical times – when poverty was rampant, and people would embark on long journeys, often travelling down perilous roads, anyone who had travelled from one city to another would have left his or her home for long periods of time – it goes without saying that they would have greatly needed the help of generous hosts. In today’s modern age of abundance, fast transportation and hotels, this hospitality has almost completely lost its value and significance, right?
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The realities of life in Western society, and especially in the immigrant-absorbing State of Israel, prove that people are growing increasingly estranged from their surroundings, and this trend is equally applicable to relationships between people and their close relatives. Hospitality is perhaps especially important and essential for us and our times.
We might need to pay more attention to this commandment, and to be more aware of it, and the sooner we do so, the better. Our country absorbed over one million new immigrants over the past two decades. Many of them integrated quite well, but others are still stranded within the Israeli bureaucracy and Israeli society. I have quite often encountered new immigrants from the United States or the former Soviet Union who were surprised, and even horrified, by the fact that none of their Israeli peers had chosen to invite them in their homes for a Shabbat meal. Those people had been accustomed to inviting any Israeli who should happen to visit their country, and these same individuals are now finding themselves ostracized, despite their best efforts, and excluded from a vibrant Israeli society.
This isn’t because of miserliness or jealousy, God forbid. It’s just that we find it hard to break out of our Israeli shells and try to include a family from a different culture, with a different lifestyle or speaking a language we aren’t accustomed to hearing, even if it’s just for one evening. This holds true not just for new immigrants; we have this problem when it comes to any person who is not of our flesh and blood, socially or culturally. If that person isn’t a member of the right tribe – we won’t associate with him or her.
Hospitality toward guests means being prepared to include other worlds, and to host them in our homes, which are veritably our fortresses. Any couple who wants to have children is essentially bringing a third partner into its home. That child will be a nuisance at night and during the day. The child might delay his parents’ career plans, will cause a great deal of concern and worry, and will “cause problems”. The last test that Sarah and Avraham needed to face before bringing a child into the world concerned their limitless readiness to include others within their homes. This is why the Torah linked these two stories.
The turbulence of Israeli society tends to accentuate the different perspectives of the various groups of which it is comprised, and that is fine. Nevertheless, it behooves us to learn how to invite a guest into our home, and learn to include those different from us. The synergy created by this openness will enable our nation to produce something new and great.