Parashat Vayera 5780

Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 15 November 2019

Parashat Va-yera begins with the arrival of three visitors at the door of Abraham’s tent. It is the hottest time of the day and Abraham runs to greet him, bows low to the ground and offers them hospitality. He quickly welcomes them, offers them water, the chance to bathe their feet, to rest and revive their spirits and bodies with food. ‘Let me bring a bit of bread,’ he says to them in a classic understatement, as he rushes into the tent to ask Sarah to bake a generous number of loaves, takes a young and tender calf, slaughters it himself and asks his servant to prepare it, presenting his guests with an abundant feast.

It is from this passage that the rabbinic principle of hachnasat or’chim – hospitality to strangers is derived and the Rabbis praised Abraham for his open-hearted generosity.

Of Abraham, the third century, Palestinian teacher, Abbahu said: ‘The tent of the Patriarch opened at both sides’. And Rabbi Judan said: It was like a double gated passage. Abraham could see weary travellers coming from both sides of his tent ensuring that he could always rush out and greet them from whatever direction they were coming (Genesis Rabbah 48:9)

In one of the most well-known of rabbinic teachings, the Talmud (Shabbat 127a) lists those things that merit reward in the world to come, including visiting the sick, teaching one’s children Torah, the practice of loving deeds and hach’nasat or’chim – hospitality to strangers. Rav Judah is reported to have taught in Rav’s name: ‘Hospitality to wayfarers is greater even than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah – the Presence of God’ (ibid.). God is not like human beings, the Talmud continues. In human life, an inferior person cannot say to an individual who is greater than them, ‘Wait for me until I come to you’; but in the case of the Holy One, it is written that Abraham, visited by God in the heat of the day, left God’s presence to attend to his guests – an astonishing midrash that, with a measure of hyperbole, underlines the sacred task of hospitality.

Let one’s house always be welcoming and open to strangers, teaches another passage in the Talmud. And the Pesach Haggadah opens with the famous invitation to those who are hungry and on their own: Kol-dich’fin yeytey v’yeychol, kol-ditzrich yeytey v’yifsach – ‘Let all who are hungry, come and eat. All who are in need, come and celebrate Pesach.’

So the mitzvah of hospitality, of opening one’s home and community to guests and visitors, is considered among the highest of all ethical principles in Judaism. Hospitality, however, is not unlimited, according to the Rabbis. There is a wry dig at those who outstay their welcome in a passage from Midrash Tehillim (23:3) which says that a guest should not impose on their host or extend their visit longer than three days. ‘On the day a guest arrives, a calf is slaughtered in his honour – he eats roast beef; the next day, a lamb, the third day, chicken, and on the fourth day, he is served just beans.’

It is one thing to raise awareness about hachnasat or’chim – hospitality. It is quite another thing to take our learning beyond the cerebral and embody it in some way in our daily life. If we are truly serious in living meaningful and sacred Jewish lives, then we need to ask ourselves, how do we as individuals and as a community measure up to Abraham’s example of hospitality and kindness to strangers?

A few years ago, a second year student at Leo Baeck College wrote these words in his commentary about Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality:

    ‘I’ve been to many different synagogues over the last 4 years. Interestingly, the only thing I remember about each of them is how I was welcomed… I’ve spent a little more than a year in the UK and how many Friday night spontaneous invitations do you think I’ve had so far? Not many. Two, actually, and both of them from rabbis. On the other hand, I’ve had many invitations for a Friday night supper, which were made in advance. I’m very grateful for each of them…’

I felt myself nodding ruefully and rather sadly as I read these words. How well do our communities welcome strangers and guests into our midst? How difficult is it for visitors to enter synagogues for worship? How easy or difficult do we find it to offer spontaneous hospitality to visitors on a Friday evening or Shabbat lunchtime?

Sadly, we live in a culture of suspicion and hostility. How we transform that defensiveness and cultivate values of compassion, empathy and warmth is the task that falls on all of us who are part of our Liberal Judaism communities.

Ron Wolfson, who has spent a lifetime studying synagogues and who is a professor of Jewish Education in the United States, has written a whole book called ‘The Spirituality of Welcoming’.

“The synagogue,” he writes, “can be a sacred community that offers everyone who steps into its midst a welcome infused with spirituality – with meaning, purpose, connection and the presence of the Divine… We live in a time and a culture that seems to work against the very thing we hope to create: a synagogue of relationships. Relationships begin with a sincere greeting – a handshake, a smile, and a good word… We are in danger of losing the art of hospitality…” (pp. 47 and 50).

At the heart of a successful and welcoming community are the individuals who take to heart this pre-eminent value of hospitality. It is what helps us to form meaningful relationships, to work for social justice and to emphasise what Ron Wolfson calls ‘spiritual direction.’

In the heat of our current political climate, let us look to Abraham who roused himself to greet what he thought were three human visitors, but was, in fact, a visit from God – Va-yera elav Adonai b’elonei mamre‘The Eternal One appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent at about the hottest time of the day…’

Hospitality in our communities to all those who seek to find a Jewish home is the first step to creating a society that extends a welcome to strangers in its midst – the asylum seeker and refugee, fleeing from their homeland to create a new life full of promise and hope for them and their children.

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