Parashah Ponderings

People Need People

Parashat Vayera 5782 / פָּרָשַׁת וַיֵּרָא
Torah Portion:
Genesis 18:1-22:24

People need people. I was reminded of this in recent days through encounters with friends old and new.

Earlier this week I received word that the mother of a childhood friend had recently been diagnosed with an aggressive and inoperable form of brain cancer. Though I had not spoken with or written to my friend for many years, I wrote to her, offering my love, support and prayers during this difficult time. She wrote back saying she couldn’t express how much she appreciated my message. We will speak next week, after she visits with her mom. Though she has a healthy network of family and friends to bolster her spirits, the unexpected grace of friends from long ago signals that even in her loneliest of moments, she is never and has never been alone.

Also this week, I’ve continued to hold a beloved elder in my prayers as she’s faced a series of medical challenges. A long-time member of the congregation who inspires us with her joy, wisdom and spunk, Rosie is now on the mend and full of smiles. I am grateful for her daughter Shelly for sending me a photo of Rosie sitting up, dressed, and beaming as she prepared to leave the hospital and go to rehab. Rosie wouldn’t be where she is today without the countless medical professionals, friends, and loving family who have been doing their part to restore Rosie to good health. It’s amazing what can happen when people care for other people!

That people need other people is one of the primary messages of Parashat Vayera, a patchwork of stories alternately uplifting, horrifying, inspiring and mystifying. In the Torah portion for this week, Abraham appears in all but one of the stories, taking on different roles in relation to God, his wife Sarah, and the world around him. Each story highlights the importance of taking care of the people around us.

In the one scene where Abraham is absent, we encounter Lot’s two daughters, fearful following the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah that the human race will end with them and their father. Their plan to lie with their father and become impregnated by him defies the Torah’s own prohibition against incest but gives rise to two of Israel’s neighboring nations, the Ammonites and Moabites, the latter of which is the tribe of Ruth, the great-grandmother of King David. Once we get past the sordid details of the story, we discover two women who love humanity so much, even after what they witnessed in Sodom and Gomorrah, that they will sublimate their own sense of decency in order to ensure humanity’s survival.

Earlier in the parashah, Abraham, who is still recovering from being circumcised, spies three guests coming toward his tent and jumps up and runs out to greet them. He then beckons Sarah and one of his servants to get busy preparing a feast for their visitors. The three visitors turn out to be agents of God; they appear to deliver the news that the elderly Sarah would give birth to Abraham’s heir within the year. In this incident, Abraham and Sarah set the standard for the mitzvah of hospitality for all time. We also find the basis for allowing the telling of untruths if they are intended to spare feelings and to maintain family peace.

Later, God announces to Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah had doomed themselves to destruction because of their violent and lascivious behavior. It is in this context that Abraham comes to the aid of his fellow human beings as he pleads with God to save the towns if God might find only ten righteous people among the dwellers. Ten such people could not be found, and the cities were destroyed. Nonetheless, Abraham forever earns a place in the panoply of biblical heroes for the chutzpah he musters to argue with God on behalf of people he did not know.

The penultimate scene of the parashah depicts the birth of Isaac and the subsequent dispersion of the blended family that had once included Sarah’s handmaid and her son, Ishmael, whom Abraham had fathered. The story is all the more poignant because it shows our ancestors at their most vulnerable, feeling alone and scared, trying to take care of each other while also causing harm to others. It is a heart wrenching story that bears a profound lesson about how difficult it can be sometimes for human beings to know what is right for themselves, for their families and for their descendents.

It is ironic that this parashah, which has presented image after image of human beings doing what they think is best for other people, ends with Abraham nearly sacrificing Isaac at God’s behest. After all these lessons about the interdependence of human beings, we learn that Abraham was ready to give up his beloved Isaac, the one whose birth was foretold in the opening verses of the parashah, the one on whom the prophecy of Abraham’s greatness and blessing depended. The contrast between the Akedah, the sacrifice of Isaac, and all that came before further highlights the reality that people need people.

What a contrast, too, between my encounters this week with my friend and Rosie. As my friend comes to terms with her mother’s terminal diagnosis, so many people, including myself, will reach out and hold her, giving her the strength and courage to cope with the inevitabile. As I look at the photo of Rosie on my phone, on the other hand, I am overjoyed that she is doing well. How awesome that so many people have come to her aid and have helped her regain her health and spirit! Here are two cases that prove that people need people. Let us all be there for one another whenever we are needed.

Parashah Ponderings

Transforming Hospitality from Good to Sacred

Parashat Vayera / פרשת וירא

Torah Portion: Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Hospitality, hachnasat orchim, is an important Jewish value that is rooted in this week’s Torah portion. Here Abraham and Sarah demonstrate the kind of gracious and loving care for strangers that our tradition says we should all show. As with all mitzvot, though, there is more to the story than meets the eye. Abraham and Sarah may be nice people who are naturally inclined to extend themselves to people in need, but they are also executing what we believe is God’s will. In this respect, they are performing a sacred act, which we are to copy in our own lives.

Our portion begins:

The Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”

Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate. (Genesis 18:1-8)

There is much to learn from this short vignette. First, Abraham rushes to meet his guests, whom we later discover are angels, where they are. Abraham doesn’t just sit in one spot until the men approach him. Rather, he gets up and runs toward them. Abraham’s eagerness here is remarkable in it’s own right, but doubly so because, according to our sages, he had circumcised himself as a sign of entering into a covenant with God only three days earlier! Not only does Abraham hasten to greet his guests, he does so while presumably enduring a great deal of pain. Rather than use his circumstances as an excuse to withhold hospitality, he sets thoughts of his own physical condition aside and, with the aid of Sarah and a servant, tends to the three strangers. Like Abraham and Sarah, we must see beyond ourselves when we welcome strangers into our lives.

Then Abraham makes his guests feel welcomed and comfortable. He washes their feet, a common welcoming ritual in Abraham’s world, and feeds his visitors well. It might be easier to share with the men leftovers or items that are readily available, but instead Abraham treats his guests as if they were family who had traveled a great distance to celebrate a festival. Abraham and Sarah are intentional and generous in their hospitality. They treat their guests not like casual passersby but like royalty. Like Abraham and Sarah, we must see guests and strangers as made in God’s image, as worthy of great respect.

Finally, it is notable where Abraham situates his guests, at the entrance to his tent under the shade of a tree. He performs the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim in plain view of his neighbors. By doing so, Abraham is able to inspire those near him to similarly extend hospitality when they are able to do so. Had he brought his guests into his tent, no one outside the tent could have known the great extent to which Abraham and Sarah would go to care for their visitors. As the founding father and mother of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah surely understood that they had a special responsibility to show others what it is that God expects of them. Like Abraham and Sarah, we too should strive to model hachnasat orchim in its richest sense.

In the anthology of commentary to the Book of Genesis known as Bereishit Rabbah, our sages teach that God’s visit to Abraham through the angels shows that Abraham had become “a chariot of the Divine Presence” on which God’s very being rested (Art Scroll Humash, p. 78). In other words, with every act of hospitality – from noticing the visitors, to greeting them, to feeding and caring for them, and later to escorting them on their way — Abraham had become a vehicle for bringing God’s presence into the world.

The lesson for us is simple. It is good to be nice to strangers and guests, but when we truly invest our whole beings in their care, such as Abraham and Sarah did for their guests, our hospitality goes from being good to being sacred, from being a nice thing to do to being a mitzvah. May we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors, opening our hearts and our homes to all in need and increasing God’s loving presence in our world.

Shabbat Shalom.