In Every Moment, the Choice Is Ours
Sight and vision play an important role in the two opening narratives of Parashat Vayera. At the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, the newly circumcised Abraham, resting in his abode of Elonei Mamre, “looks up” and sees “three men rooted before him” (Gen. 18:1–2). Their appearance triggers a flurry of activity in the homestead of our ancestors as Abraham and Sarah scurry to perform the mitzvah of hachnasat orkhim, hosting guests in one’s home. These guests—these mysterious messengers—are pampered as they go on to deliver the news that Sarah will conceive. Juxtaposed to this story of generosity and kindness, we then encounter the narrative of Sodom and Gomorrah. Interestingly, it opens with the same men setting out on their journey, and in sharp contrast to Abraham’s upwardly gazing posture, they “look down toward Sodom.” What are we to make of the joined positioning of these two stories?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains,
From the hospitable meal at Abraham, they stood up and looked towards Sodom . . . Sodom offered the most complete contrast to the simple pure atmosphere from which these men were just emerging. They had just seen the foundation of a nation laid on two factors: a) on sanctifying the body with all its urges and lures in pure moral submission to God in brit milah(the covenant of circumcision) and b) on practicing universal brotherly love, as in the kindness which they themselves enjoyed in Abraham’s home. The hospitable meal at which they had just announced the first foundation stone of the future people of God offered such a contrast to Sodom, formed such a loftiness to the Sodomite debasement to which they now had to wend their way, that they “looked down to the plains of Sodom with criticizing gauging consideration.” For that is the meaning of va’yashkifu, that “they looked down.” (Commentary on the Torah: Genesis, 318)
Shakespeare was a master of juxtaposing opposites in his writings and, so too, Torah. The stark contrast between the example of our ancestor Abraham and the behavior of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah gives us pause to reflect on what it means to build aan ethical and moral civilization. Rabbi Hirsch emphasizes this notion in commenting on the expression used for the men looking out toward Sodom, va’yashkifu. They look down, literally and figuratively, upon the evil that is unfolding in these twin cities. Abraham, on the other hand, looks up. The divine quality of the three men that have just appeared in his home shines through and through. And Abraham rises to the occasion. Hirsch sharpens our exegetical focus as we read through this text. For it is not simply the contrast that is of import, but also the need to recognize these moments as “the foundation of a nation.” Abraham’s descendants must sanctify their bodies and practice kindness to build a sacred future.
Indeed, every moment in life presents us with the choice between Elonei Mamre or Sodom—it is a decision between embracing the presence of God and our fellow humans or banishing the divine from our midst. May we always be blessed with the gumption and sight of Abraham, choosing the path of Elonei Mamre.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.