I wanted to start by briefly reviewing everything that happens in this parsha because it’s so interesting, and then focusing on one section. It begins in Hebron, where Abraham welcomes three strangers who subsequently prove to be angels or messengers. They inform Abraham and Sarah, now advanced in years, that Sarah is to have a son. Sarah finds this quite laughable, which annoys God. She denies laughing, but in what struck me as kind of an unGodlike manner God replies, “you did laugh”.
Then God informs Abraham that He is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham argues God down to the presence of ten righteous people being enough to save the cities. Since the cities were in fact destroyed, we assume that ten were not to be found there. Lot, Abraham’s nephew, is literally pulled out of Sodom at the last minute by the angels (now only 2) after having offered his daughters to the angry mob in place of these strangers. His nameless wife looks back at the conflagration and turns into a pillar of salt. After this, thinking all of humanity has been destroyed, Lot’s daughters get him drunk, and, in the first instance of assisted reproduction, lie with him and become pregnant by him. One of the sons from this union is Moav the ancestor of David, suggesting no editorial disapproval of the behaviour.
Finally Isaac is born, in another instance of assisted reproduction, to 90 year old Sarah and 100 year old Abraham. Now Sarah really laughs, which is of course the derivation of the name Yitzhak. Randall Abramson did a lovely dvar torah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah on the subject of laughter, it can be found on the City Shul website.
Her laughter stops abruptly when she sees Ishmael, the teenage son of Abraham and Hagar the Egyptian slavewoman. Sarah demands that they be cast out, so as not to interfere with Isaac’s inheritence. Abraham is troubled by this but God tells him to do what his wife says, as she is of course right. Ishmael almost dies in the desert but God saves him and makes him a great nation also, generally believed to be the Arabs.
The parsha ends with the Akeda, the binding of Isaac. We are actually reading this section of the parsha today, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk about the Akeda and would refer you instead to the wonderful Dvar torah on the subject on the second day of Rosh Hashanah by Stephen Shapiro, also found on the website.
What I would like to concentrate on today is the story at the beginning of the parsha, Abraham’s welcoming of the three guests. The welcoming of guests is known in Hebrew as Hachnasat Orchim, and its importance is underlined by its presence in the Shacharit service among the “obligations without measure”, the Gemilut Chasadim. Let’s look at the text more closely, on page 122 of the Chumash, bearing in mind that all of this was said to have occurred just 3 days after Abraham circumcised himself: [read text 1-8]. He wasn’t just putting on the kettle! Now although the reader is given to understand that the strangers are angels, since they appear right after Adonai appears to him, the rabbis felt that Abraham didn’t know these were angels until after they foretold the birth of Isaac. His hospitality was genuine and eager. The rabbis felt he was sitting at the entrance of his tent just waiting for a guest to feed. He ran to greet them, hastened to have Sarah quickly knead cakes (with 84 cups’ worth [3 se’im] of choice flour, no less), then ran to the heard to have a servant-boy hasten to prepare a choice calf. Parenthetically, note also that the meat is served with milk, kashrut came later.
Furthermore, Abraham attended to every need of his guests. He immediately provided water to wash their feet after a long journey through the desert on a hot day, then had them recline under a tree. He offered them just a ‘morsel’ of bread so that they wouldn’t feel they were imposing if they accepted his offer. He waited on them while they ate, and finally, later in the parsha, he escorted them on their way. He didn’t just welcome them, he made them feel welcome.
The detail with which this mitzvah is described (unlike most of the descriptions in Torah of Abraham’s good deeds) elevates this act above many other mitzvot. The Talmudic Sages interpreted the first line of the passage to suggest that Abraham interrupted his conversation with God to attend to his guests, thus indicating that Hachnasat Orchim is more important even than experiencing the Divine Presence.
Why this importance? The constant Biblical injunction that we welcome the stranger since we were strangers in the land of Egypt is certainly part of the story. Furthermore, by so honouring our guests we are recognizing the Divine aspect of each individual. Welcoming guests into our homes forces us to take the time to break down barriers and build community. And by performing this mitzvah at the local level, perhaps we learn how to accept and include those we consider ‘strangers’ in the larger society.
So hopefully I’ve convinced you that Judaism considers Hachnasat Orchim one of the most important mitzvot. Whether or not we actually apply it is another matter. We are building together a new, cool shul from the ground up, as the rabbi says, so we’re all newbies for now. But it’s too easy to fall into the pattern of the ‘in-group’ that excludes newcomers. It’s rarely conscious; we are all busy, we are often shy. But people with important roles in the shul can be somewhat intimidating to outsiders, unless a conscious effort is made to make them feel welcome, anticipating and attending to all their needs. As we create an exciting new community that rewrites the old shul rules, let’s strive to avoid cliques and factions, and welcome our guests and strangers into the heart of our congregation. Shabbat shalom.