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As we have been reading in recent weeks, the early narratives of

Genesis have a great deal to teach us. In Vayera, we encounter

three models of hospitality. In the first, Abraham displays great

warmth and generosity towards three strangers who approach his

tent. In the second, Lot — realizing that he doesn’t really have any

choice in the matter — reluctantly welcomes two visitors to

Sodom into his home. In the third — admittedly more a model of

non-hospitality — Sarah, interested in protecting the inheritance

of her son, convinces Abraham to cast HAWGAR and Ismael out

of the camp, leaving them to fend for themselves.

Commentators throughout the ages have held up Abraham’s

behaviour towards the three strangers as a prime example of the

mitzvah of HACHNASAT ORCHIM — welcoming guests into

one’s home. When he sees the strangers approaching, Abraham

jumps up, runs out to greet them, and invites them to share in a

simple meal. But the “MORSEL OF BREAD” that Abraham

initially offers turns out to be something much more decadent, as

he instructs Sarah to make cakes from “CHOICE FLOWER”

and tells his servant to prepare a prime piece of meat. However,

setting the details of the meal itself aside, it is Abraham’s actions

before the food is served that most deserve our attention.

According to RAWSHI, the visitors appeared at a most

inconvenient time. It was the hottest part of the day. Abraham,

who had circumcised himself only three days earlier, still would

have been in considerable pain. Nevertheless, RASHI notes,

Abraham was not inside his tent resting in the shade. Rather, he

was sitting outside on purpose, so that he could see anybody who

might be passing by and welcome them in. A modern day

commentator, “RABBI HARVEY FIELDS”, points out that

Abraham’s model of hospitality is “not passive.” Rather, as both

FIELDS and RAWSHI note, Abraham is actively looking for

ways to offer assistance and be hospitable.

There is also the matter of God. In the opening verse, we are

told, “AWDONAI APPEARED” to Abraham as he sat in front of

his tent. Yet Abraham leaves God and runs out to meet the passing

strangers. Another modern commentator, RABBI SHAI HELD,

calls this a “stunning” scene. “What is Abraham doing?”

HELD asks. “How can he just turn away from God and go

greet human guests instead?” One answer to this question is

offered by DR. NAHUM SARNA who suggests that in leaving

God to go meet the strangers, Abraham is actually honouring God

because Abraham’s “hospitality to strangers itself becomes an act

of worship.” Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out in

reference to this scene, the Talmud tells us that extending

hospitality towards guests is more important than studying

religious texts or “receiving the divine presence” in prayer.

Perhaps the point of the encounter in the first verse isn’t about us

looking for God standing beside Abraham, but rather in seeing

Godliness in Abraham’s treatment of the strangers.

Two weeks ago, several classmates and I visited the Bedouin

village of Um Al Kheir. This was my first trip to the West Bank,

and I admit that I didn’t know what to expect. Upon arrival, we

were greeted warmly and treated with generous hospitality at

every turn. I was overwhelmed. Despite living with the incredible

challenge of lacking the basic infrastructure and the comforts that

we all take for granted, and facing the constant threat of having

their homes repeatedly demolished, the community of Um Al

Kheir collectively exhibited Abraham’s model of hospitality.

We were invited back and promised to return. I am eager to visit

again. However, the trip also brought about considerable soul

searching. I know what I received from the visit. But how can I

reciprocate the hospitality I received in Um Al Kheir? Right now,

this is an unanswered question.

A good host — such as Abraham, and like the people of Um

Al Kheir — expects nothing in return; but a good guest actively

looks for opportunities to return the kindness they received. I left

Um Al Kheir feeling like I had nothing to offer its people in return

for the kindness they had extended to us. But I don’t believe that

has to be the case. I saw Godliness in the acts of hospitality of the

people who live there. But how do we find God, and how do we

honour and worship God in difficult situations? How do we

extend meaningful hospitality to true strangers? What happens

when, like Lot, we are reluctant hosts, or like Sarah, feel that

extending hospitality might go against our self-interests?

Imagine for a moment that we expand our definition of

hospitality to go beyond throwing a dinner party or offering a

travelling friend a bed for the night. These are easy things to do.

Imagine that, like Abraham, we manifest our hospitality by

actively — rather than passively —looking for ways to help

others, especially those who are marginalized and lack the

resources and opportunities that we, as future rabbis, cantors, and

educators have access to. The people of Um Al Kheir are but one

example of a community in need of hospitality that goes beyond

the basic definition of the word. What can I — what can we —

offer? I believe that political advocacy is one way that we can

reciprocate hospitality. It is a way for us to act in a Godly fashion.

May we use the example of Abraham to help bring comfort

to those who are hurting, struggling, lacking, and in need our

active hospitality.

Ken Yehi ratzon – May it be God’s will…