Welcoming the Stranger

Vayera By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Oct 30, 1999 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

Parashat Va-Yera opens with two seemingly unrelated narratives: first, ‘three men’ appear mysteriously to Abraham, bearing the news that his wife, Sarah, will soon conceive. Next we read of God’s destruction of the cities of S’dom and Amora for their immorality and corruption.

The heavenly visitors serve as a link between the two narratives: it is they who deliver the good news to Sarah and they who warn Abraham’s nephew, Lot, of the cities’ impending destruction. A second connection, this one thematic and allusive, emerges from the contrast between the two stories.

Abraham is well-known for his hospitality: as the parasha opens, Abraham sits anxiously by the opening of his tent, looking to greet and provide hospitality to wayfarers. As Genesis 18:1 notes, Abraham “was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day.” Abraham actively sought strangers to whom he could be hospitable. Not only does he seek these wayfarers out, once they arrive he encourages them ‘to wash their feet’, ‘recline under the tree’, ‘fetches’ them bread to ‘refresh their hearts,’ and serves ‘tender and fine’ delicacies. Everett Fox, a modern commentator on the Bible, writes, “Central . . . is the idea of hospitality, emphasized in the text by the threefold use of ‘pray’ [please] (verses 3-4), ‘pass on by’ (verses 3-5), and by Abraham’s flurry of activity (he himself ‘runs’ twice, ‘hastens’ three times, and ‘fetches’ four times in serving his guests” (Fox, The Five Books of Moses, 74). Indeed, based on Abraham’s model, the Talmud declares, “hospitality to travelers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” (Tractate Shabbat 127a).

Moreover, Abraham’s model of hospitality reinforces the rabbinic reading of the great sin of S’dom and Amora. As we are presented with God’s case for the overturning of S’dom and Amora, God declares, “The outcry in S’dom and Amora – how great it is! And their sin – how exceedingly heavily it weighs!” What is the unspeakable sin of S’dom and Amora? How is it connected to the ‘hospitality’ narrative at the beginning of our parasha?

Picking up on the words ‘outcry’ (Gen. 18:20) and ‘cry’ (Gen. 18:21), the rabbis read intratextually, that is to say, they explored other appearances of these words throughout the Bible to determine their meaning in the present context of S’dom andAmora. Numerous examples of the Hebrew tse’aqah, outcry/ cry, abound: in Genesis 27:34, Esau bursts into a wild and bitter ‘cry’ after his father, Isaac, ‘mistakenly’ bestows the blessing of the first born on his younger brother Jacob. Exodus 3:7 echoes God’s empathic declaration, “[I] have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters . . . I have come down to rescue them because of their taskmasters.” And the prophet Isaiah proclaims, God “hoped for justice, but behold, injustice; for equity (tsedaqah), but behold, iniquity (tse’aqah)” (Isaiah 5:7). Thus, each instance of tse’aqah, outcry, speaks to a categorical sense of injustice – a perversion of that which is proper and just. The victims are deprived of the bounty that is rightfully theirs. Esau is wrongfully deprived of his blessing; the Israelites are brutally oppressed by their Egyptian taskmasters; and Isaiah’s contemporaries are exploited physically and morally by one another.

Ezekiel describes the particular transgression of S’dom and Amora in declaring, “Only this was the sin of your sister S’dom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy” (Ezekiel 16:49). Not only did the inhabitants of S’dom and Amora pervert justice in their midst, but it was a perversion rooted in haughtiness. Using the meaning of tse’aqah and Ezekiel’s words, the Rabbis go a step further. The Midrash paints an idyllic portrait of S’dom prior to its destruction, “There was not a path in S’dom that did not have the foliage of seven trees over it, each shading the one below it: foliage of the vine, fig, pomegranate, walnut and almond, apple and peach, so that each path was fully sheltered.” Ramban comments, given their land’s fertility, “they imagined that many people would come to their land.” He continues, “the Sodomites prevented the entry of all strangers . . . They refused to share their bounty with the less fortunate.” How much more does the evil of S’dom become tragically evident juxtaposed to the graciousness of our ancestor Abraham?

Whereas Abraham goes to great lengths to share his bounty with utter strangers, the people of S’dom become suspicious at the sight of strangers in their midst – encircling Lot’s home and demanding that Lot ‘bring out’ these wayfarers (to be taken advantage of in some way, possibly sexually). In the mind of the people of S’dom, those who are strange and rootless are contemptible – deserving of being expelled from one’s midst and abused. It is God — and only God — who hears the ‘cry’ of the oppressed in S’dom and Amora. For no inhabitant of S’dom is capable of hearing their outcry. It is in reaction to the depths of utter injustice that God declares, ‘Now let me go down and see’ (Gen. 18:21). God must take decisive action. In stark contrast, nothing is too good for Abraham’s guests. Abraham has been blessed with plenty, but far from hoarding his delicacies and riches, Abraham seeks to share his bounty with others.

Both Abraham and the people of S’dom and Amora are blessed with bounty; both make their choices. One path rightfully leads to destruction while the other path appropriately leads to continuity. Because Abraham hears the tse’aqah, the outcry, of others — the strangers in the desert, the hungry, the oppressed, those who are less fortunate than himself — he merits the blessing of continuity. And so Parashat VaYera presents us with a challenge. We, like our ancestor Abraham, must ‘sit in the entrance to our tents at the heat of the day.’ It is our responsibility to endure discomfort – to sit at the doorposts of our homes and gates and look out for those who are less fortunate than we. When we volunteer in homeless shelters, invite new faces to our weekly Shabbat celebrations, donate of our time and money to the needy, respond to other nations in times of crises (like the recent earthquakes in Turkey and Taiwan, as well as the human devastation of Kosovo) – this is what it means to act in the sacred image of God. Like Abraham, we must be active locally in seeking the stranger out to make that individual feel ‘at home’; like God, we must also be ever vigilant of that distant cry which pierces the firmament, demanding that we reach out over great distances to make our presence known.

Shabbat shalom u-mevorach,

Matthew Berkowitz