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One of the things I’ve noticed about the current, ongoing, sexual harassment issue is the role that place plays in all this. “He invited me up to his hotel room”, “He took me to his apartment”, “He asked me to come to his office”, etc., etc. Notions of safe and unsafe spaces, of the weaponized use of private space, of whether we should trust an invitation to come on in or not, seem to be an integral part of many of these stories. Now, the halachot pertaining to yichud – being alone in a private place with someone of the opposite sex – certainly look smarter and timelier than ever, but I wanted to look at another aspect of the connection between place and sexuality which appears in this week’s parsha, Vayeira.
In Vayeira we get to know two homes, two families, two households: Avraham’s and his nephew Lot’s. The parsha opens with the visit of three angels to the tent of Avraham and Sarah. Together, the aged couple hosts the three graciously and generously; she does the baking, he handles the meat and the first course.
During the course of the meal, Avraham is asked by the angels where Sarah is, and he responds that she is in the tent. The tradition sees this as an indication of her sexual modesty, she is tznuah, a word used for generations (often on tombstones) to describe good Jewish wives and daughters. I must say that I am not completely comfortable with modesty being seen as a woman’s crowning attribute. It probably did make more sense in pre-modern times (i.e., the bulk of human history), when there were no reliable contraceptives and women were dependant on male protection, but today, less so. However, at the risk of getting into Mayim Bialik-type trouble, I will say that the question of modesty, not only but particularly for women, is an issue today, and deserves thought.
Anyway, what happens next is this: the angels promise Avraham and Sarah a son, the 90-year-old Sarah is understandably bemused at hearing the news (as was Avraham in last week’s parsha), and the angels go on their way.
We follow them to Sodom, where they have come to save Avraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family, and then destroy the city. Here, too, we are shown how hospitable Lot is, insisting that the two angels eat and spend the night at his home. Once there, he gives them drink and bread, but, before long, the people of Sodom, hearing of these strangers at Lot’s home, come there and demand that the two strangers be brought outside, “and we will know them”. Now, this could be seen as being relatively innocent, and could mean we want them to come out so we can see who they are, but apparently it’s more sinister, and means they will rape them, because Lot refuses, and offers them his two virgin daughters to do with as they will, indicating the sexual nature of the demand. The Sodomites are unmoved, and demand the two guests, threatening to break in and do Lot harm. At this stage the angels smite the townsfolk with blindness, saving Lot, and, the next morning, take Lot and his family out of the city. Lot leaves with his wife and daughters, leaving behind their fiancés, who refuse to heed Lot’s warning. On the way out, Lot’s wife ignores the angels’ order to not look back, does so, and is turned into a pillar of salt (the verse can be read to mean that she simply saw that the city was turned to salt, but we’ll go with this Midrash).
Subsequently, left alone with their father and believing the entire world to have been destroyed, Lot’s daughters get him drunk, lie with him, conceive and give birth.
You will notice that in both stories we have hospitality, sexuality, and fertility. Avraham and Sarah together host the angels – with Sarah being careful to be modest in doing so – and are promised a child, who is later born to them. Lot hosts the angels on his own. His wife is not mentioned at all as a hostess, and the Rabbis tell us she refused Lot’s request to bring some salt for the guests, making her ultimate punishment a piece of poetic justice. We then have the attempted homosexual rape, the offer of the two daughters, and Lot’s subsequent fathering of his own grandchildren.
What are we to make of the confluence of these themes? How does the theme of hospitality mesh with issues of sexuality, modesty, and fertility?
The theme of the stranger and sexuality is a common one. How many movies use the opening of a door to a stranger as an invitation to flirtation, sexual possibility, or danger? The home is private, personal – a place where people live together intimately, almost secretly, where love is made, and children conceived. Letting in a stranger, an outsider, is dangerous, unsettling. Avraham and Sarah navigate this fraught interaction well: Sarah is involved, takes part in welcoming the strangers, but appropriately, modestly. This appropriate opening of the home to others is rewarded with renewed youthful vigor and the birth of a child.
Lot’s home, on the other hand, is much more problematic. His hospitality is much less generous than that of Avraham and Sarah – drink and bread as opposed to milk, butter, meat, and cakes. His wife is totally absent, embracing, the Rabbis tell us, the ethos of Sodom and refusing to host strangers. The sexuality of Sodom, a place Lot chose to live in, is sick: predatory, violent, abusive of the weak, the other, strangers, people from somewhere else. When offered an escape, Lot’s sons in law demonstrate the opposite of family solidarity, scoffing at him, and letting their fiancées leave without them.
The subsequent radical infertility of Lot’s wife – turned into barren salt – and the birth, through a drunken, incestuous relationship, of Lot’s children/grandchildren is a kind of parody of the blessing of healthy fertility bestowed upon Avraham and Sarah.
I think this is how it all fits together: Any attempt at personal, human connection, whether an intimate one or just a bit of friendly hospitality to guests, is a challenge. We are shy. We are suspicious and fearful of the other, often finding it easy to take advantage of a stranger or outsider who is weak, defenseless. The challenge is to create a home - the place where we demarcate inside and outside, us and them, private and public – which is open and welcoming, while at the same time is modest, and safe, has boundaries, order, rules, levels of appropriateness.
Avraham and Sarah demonstrate that they have successfully navigated the distance between one another by working together, appropriately, to navigate the distance between them and the outside world. This success at creating a home of safely reaching out and connecting, to each other and, together, to others, is supportive of a healthy intimacy, which is rewarded with fertility, the birth of Yitzchak.
Lot, on the other hand, is unable to successfully connect to the outside world – he chooses to live in Sodom, the capital of xenophobia and abuse of the other. Though he tries to get it right, by inviting the angels over, he can’t, because his intimate relations are off – his wife won’t reach out with him; she’s not modest, she’s absent. He is willing to offer his daughters to the mob. Their fiancées ridicule Lot and abandon them. This inability to reach out and connect, both intimately and more publicly, is confluent with the barrenness of his wife and the shameful form of fertility he is involved in.
We can’t be good at dealing with the intimate others in our lives, if we can’t deal with the more distant others, and vice versa. Avraham and Sarah’s ability to interact successfully and safely outside the circle of their family and friends – to create a safe and welcoming home - is part and parcel of their ability to interact intimately. Lot’s failure at his intimate relationships makes his home one that is not safe for strangers to enter. His choice of Sodom destroys both his personal and his public interactions. If you’re not nice to people you’re not nice to people, whether they are near or far, intimate or not. Our hospitality to strangers – the way we let them in - is inexorably and inextricably connected to the way we let our most intimate others in.