This week’s Torah portion of Vayera (Gen. 18:1-22:24) has one of the most important teachings found in Judaism, or any authentic faith tradition. At its essence, the portion is about the power of genuine hospitality. We learn through the portion of both the benefits of treating a guest with honor as well as the horrors that happen when we ignore this basic act of goodness.
The illustrations of both extremes are found together in this reading so that the lesson becomes extra clear to us. In the first case we read about Abraham’s commitment to being kind to strangers. After having just been circumcised (the end of last week’s reading), Abraham is recuperating outside of his tent when he sees three men in the distance. Despite his personal pain, he jumps up and races to greet them, and insists that they stay with him for a relaxing meal. These men, whom the Midrash teach were actually angels, appreciate his hospitality and promise that he and Sarah will have a son within the year (despite their advanced age). As we all know, this miracle does occur and Abraham and Sarah give birth to a son whom they name Yizhak (Isaac). The child’s name means “laughter” as Sarah laughed when she heard that she would ever have a child at her age.
Our Sages teach that the lesson is clear: the miracle of childbirth to this elderly couple is prompted by their genuine act of hospitality.
From the promise of Isaac’s birth, these angels then head down to Sodom accompanied by Abraham. There, God will determine if Sodom should be destroyed entirely for their “sin being so grave” (Gen. 18:21). Abraham negotiates on behalf of the people, ultimately getting God to agree that if there are even 10 righteous people in Sodom, God would restrain Himself from destroying the city.
But what is the “sin that is so grave” that it justifies the destruction of the city?
Sefer HaYashar details an example of Sodom’s grave sin. “And when a stranger came to their city with goods, which he had bought, or if he had some goods for sale, they would gather themselves around him, all the men, women and children, young and old, and they took by force everyone a little of his goods until all of the merchant's property was gone. And when the owner of the merchandise would quarrel with them saying: What mode of dealing is that you have done with me? Then each separately would approach him and show him the little he had in his hand saying: Behold I have not taken of thee but the little which thou hast given unto me. And hearing the same words spoken by every one of them, the poor man would arise and leave in sorrow and bitterness of soul, and then all the people followed him and drove him out of the city midst hooting and yelling”. It is this type of conscious lack of hospitality that has so angered God.
We see another clear example of their negative behavior later in the Torah reading itself, when Abraham comes to Sodom with the angels. Staying at the home of Lot, Abraham’s cousin, the people of Sodom demand that the strangers be sent out so that the people of Sodom could have sex with them (Gen. 19:5). This is clearly not just about sex as they refuse Lot’s offer of his own virginal daughters: their interest is not the sex in general but that they want to abuse the strangers specifically. This demonstration of the opposite of hospitality ultimately leads to the destruction of the city of Sodom.
From this we learn that hospitality can lead to miracles and blessings, while rejecting hospitable behavior can lead to death and destruction. And this is a lesson we all need to remember each day in order to create a more beautiful world of healing and peace.
When I taught at Loyola Marymount Univ. there was a staff member who would always set an empty place at his dinner table in case an unexpected guest showed up. (I always wondered if this was why God blessed him with five children.) We always welcome the guest of Elijah to our Passover Seder table, and are commanded to be kind to the stranger for we were “strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 23:9). Hospitality to the stranger is one of the ethical foundations of Judaism, and the basis for righteous behavior in the world.
Think how much more beautiful the world would be if we all invited guests, especially new ones that we do not know or disagree with, to our meals, gatherings, and homes. How much anti-Semitism would be cured and prejudices destroyed if we all made conscious efforts to invite the non-Jewish neighbor to our Shabbat dinner table? How much more understanding, and ultimately peace would be achieved if we opened our hearts and homes to others, shared a meal, and really listened to each other? We recently completed the holiday of Succot where we are commanded to invite guests to the Succah (over 200 guests filled our community Succah this year), and the glow that people walked away with after sharing food and conversation is palpable. How powerful would it be if we all practiced this habit of hospitality on a continual and daily basis?
One of the great things about hospitality is that it can be practiced anywhere at any time. We can invite someone to a meal at our home, for a conversation over a cup of coffee, or just to get to know each other at any time. We can truly listen to people’s stories and opinions, especially when we disagree with them. In doing so, we all have the opportunity to prevent the hatred of Sodom and to reap the blessings that come with genuine hospitality.
May we all take the lesson of hospitality in this week’s reading to heart and put it in practice. And as a result, may we all find new comradeship, create sustaining relationships with strangers who become friends, and bring more peace into the world.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
October 22nd, 2021
16th of Cheshvan, 5782