Friday, October 22, 2010

Parshat Vayera: W.W.A.D? A Lesson on Hospitality

As I had demonstrated my drash last year for Parshat Vayera, the destruction of Sodom did not come through homosexuality, but rather through a complete lack of inhospitality and the inability to respond to the plight of others. It is not merely that the Sodomites were indifferent towards the poor and downtrodden. They were downright hostile to them, as well as anyone who had attempted to lend a helping hand.

If Sodom is a clear of example of how not to deal with hospitality, there should also be an exemplar of the antithesis thereof. This is the point where I have to ask myself the question of "What Would Abraham Do?" Below is Genesis 18:1-8, 16:

"And the L-rd appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day, and he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed down to the earth, and said: 'My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant. Let now a little water be fetched, and wash your feet, and recline yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and stay ye your heart; after that ye shall pass on; forasmuch as ye are come to your servant.' And they said: 'So do, as thou hast said.' And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.' And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the servant; and he hastened to dress it. And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat..........And the men rose up from thence, and looked out toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way."

Within this homily, we find many lessons to be learned about hachnasat orchim (הכנסת אורחים):

1) At the beginning of this passage, Abraham was in the process of receiving divine revelation. When the men came to Abraham's tent, Abraham found it to be such an imperative to be hospitable that he interrupted divine revelation. Based on this, the Talmudic rabbis concluded that "hospitality is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence (Shabbat 127a)."

2) Three men approached Abraham's tent (Genesis 18:2). What was their religious affiliation? Given that Abraham and Sarah were the only two Jews at this time, it's safe to assume these three men were not Jewish. More importantly, since this took place during ancient times, it's reasonable to assume that these men were pagans. It does not matter if the guest is Jewish or not. It does not even matter if they are pagan. The text shows us that Jews are supposed to show the utmost respect to a guest in one's home, regardless of religious affiliation.

3) As indicated by וַיָּרָץ in Genesis 18:3, Abraham ran to his guests. We learn from this that we are to receive our guests enthusiastically, which makes the guests feel more wanted.

4) Abraham did not even need to ask his guests what they needed. He understood that his guests were wandering in the desert, their feet hurt, and they were extremely thirsty. As a result, he offered them water and a nice, shady tree, both of which were rarities in that topography. As the Talmud states, "Who is wise? He who foresees that which is about to happen (Tamed 32a)." Foresight even in hospitality is something to be imitated.

5) The Sages said that "a distinguishing characteristic of a righteous man is that they say little but do a lot (Bava Metzia 87a)." Abraham said he would have brought a morsel, but he told Sarah to make three cakes, not to mention that he brought curd, milk, and cow meat.

6) Abraham had servants of his own (Genesis 14:14), but nevertheless decided to serve the guests himself. What can be derived is that even if you have servants, you should attend to the guests and do some of the work so that there is a personal touch to the visit.

7) As verse 7 states, Abraham chose a fine and tender calf.  What we learn from here is that we don't give our guests leftovers or second-rate food; we give them the best that we have to offer.

8) Even during the departure of the guests, Abraham was good to his guests as he walks alongside them and saw them off (Genesis 18:16).

Reading this portion this week, I had to ask myself something. G-d teaches us act in loving-kindness, and there are many ways to show that. Seldom does G-d go into great detail about mitzvot, whether that would be Shabbat or putting on tefillin. Why does G-d choose to detail Abraham's mitzvah? What is so special about this particular mitzvah that the Sages said it was greater than receiving the Divine Presence?

I came up with this answer: G-d created the universe, and thus has domain over it. If one of the primary purposes of life is imitatio Dei, we must have dominion over something comparable to G-d's dominion over the universe. That dominion is the household. In contrast to politics or the economy, the individual can, in a temporal sense, exert the best amount of control within their home, which means that one has the best control of whether the given environment is one of cruelty or kindness. If charity begins at home, then kindness also must begin at home so that outside the home, kindness can beget more kindness.

שבת שלום!
Much of the inspiration of this entry has emanated from the teachings of R. Joseph Telushkin.

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