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Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayeira

Parashat Hashavua Vayeira 2002 / 5763 -

25.10.2002 by
In nursery schools and kindergartens, and in the lower grades of religious schools in Israel and in Jewish schools all over the world, this week's parsha, Vayeira, is usually taught as being about the value of 'hachnassat orchim' which literally means 'bringing in guests' and is the term used for what we call in English 'hospitality'. This value is emphasized in the two major stories of the portion, that of the three angels visiting Abraham, and the story of the destruction of Sodom and Amora. The parsha begins with Abraham, who has just circumcised himself and his son Ishmael, being visited by three angels. In spite of his old age, and the pain he must feel after his circumcision, Abraham welcomes them graciously. Together with his wife, Sarah, he prepares a sumptuous meal for them, replete with all types of delicacies. It is this warm and welcoming interaction which is regularly taught to Jewish children as a central Jewish value, a Mitzvah, and which is often depicted in medieval illuminated Jewish manuscripts as one of the defining moments in the lives of Abraham and Sarah. After the meal, one of the angels informs the couple that within a year's time a son, Yitzchak, will be born to them. The angels then leave, seen off by Abraham. At this point, God informs Abraham of the wickedness of the people of Sodom and Amora (we are not told the specific nature of their wickedness), and of his plans to destroy them. Abraham argues for leniency, and convinces God to agree to not destroy the cities if they contain within them even only ten good people. This conversation, although fascinating, will have no real impact on the fate of the cities, as there are not even ten good citizens within them, and God does go ahead with his plans to punish them. The two remaining angels (one of the three, who informed Abraham and Sarah of the impending birth of Yitzchak, has left) then continue to the city of Sodom, with the intention of saving the nephew of Abraham, Lot, together with his family, and then destroying the cities. Lot, in a passage which parallels Abraham's interaction with the three angels, invites the two into his home, and feeds them a meal. The differences between this meal and the earlier one with Abraham are many, and important. Abraham worked together with his wife, Sarah, to prepare the food, as well as with a serving-lad, identified by the Rabbis as his son Ishmael, whereas Lot's wife and family are never mentioned. Abraham made a handsome repast for the guest, with meat, cakes and other delicacies, whereas Lot, the Torah tells us, gave them only drink and Matzot. After Lot welcomes his guests into his home, there is a dramatic turn of events. Upon hearing that Lot has guests, the people of Sodom come to the door of his house, and demand that he send out the men who are in his home "that they may know them". It is clear that their intent is homosexual rape, as Lot comes out of his house and beseeches them not to do this terrible thing, but to take his two unmarried daughters instead (!), and do what they want with them, as long as they do not molest the men who have come to shelter in his home. The assembled mob rejects the offer, and angrily demands that Lot send out the two guests. This part of the story is the core of the rabbinic attempt to understand what was the evil of which the people of Sodom were guilty, and for which God had decided to destroy them. Interestingly, the Rabbis do not especially focus on what might have been easily inferred from this story as the cardinal sin of Sodom, namely, that they engaged in homosexual rape and/or other homosexual behavior, which clearly would have been unacceptable in the eyes of the Rabbis. Rather, the Sages extrapolate from the scene at Lot's door that the people of Sodom had a pathological hatred of guests. According to the rabbinic understanding, Lot broke with the evil norms of the city simply by inviting the angels into his home. His wife's absence from the table, and the relatively meager fare that Lot offers them, along with the anger of the citizens of Sodom at Lot for bringing these people into his home, are seen by the Rabbis as indicating that Sodom had draconian anti-guest laws, and these were precisely the laws which Lot broke, but which his wife adhered to, and which the Sodomites were trying to enforce at the expense of Lot's guests.Amplifying this theme, the Rabbis tell hair-raising tales of horrendous punishments which the people of Sodom meted out to those who fed, sheltered, or clothed strangers. Apparently these simple acts of kindness were punishable by the most painful of deaths! The Rabbis see Lot's hospitality as stemming from his relationship with his uncle Abraham. It is from him that he learned this positive behavior, and this sets him apart from his wife and the radically inhospitable people of Sodom. At this point in the story, the angels miraculously assist Lot, together with wife, who until now was completely missing from the story, along with their two daughters, to escape from the city. They are warned by the angels to run for their lives, not to delay and not to look back. Famously, Lot’s wife does look back as God rains fire and brimstone down on the city, and she is turned into a pillar of salt. Of course, this is a difficult part of the narrative to understand. Some have suggested a rational explanation; Lot's wife, when she stops to look back at the burning city, was hit by heat, or radiation, or something emanating from the destruction which God rained down on Sodom, which petrified her in some way. Others, uncomfortable with this, have suggested reading the text so that it does not say that she turned into a pillar of salt, but, rather, that she turned back and saw that the city's inhabitants had been turned into salt. I would like to stick with the plain sense of the story, that she was turned into a pillar of salt as a miraculous punishment, and try to come to an understanding of this arresting image. After his wife's tragedy, Lot is left alone with his two daughters. The Torah tells us that, thinking they were the last people left alive on earth, they got Lot drunk, seduced him, and conceived children with him, in an attempt to save the human race. When looking at the parsha, beginning with Abraham's hosting the three angels and continuing through the story of Sodom and Lot and his daughters, one can not escape the conclusion that there are two interwoven themes at work here - hospitality and fertility. Abraham's hospitality is intimately intertwined with his relationship to Sarah. They prepare the meal for their guests together, and it is at the conclusion of that meal that one of their angelic guests informs them that they will have a child. Lot, on the other hand, is hospitable alone; his wife takes no part in the relatively meager meal he serves his guests. Lot has foolishly chosen to live in a city where hospitality is a crime, and he will be punished for it. Fittingly, his wife, the inhospitable one, she who had embraced the values of Sodom, is turned into salt, the very symbol of barrenness and infertility. The Rabbis amplify this by telling us that, at the meal he made for the two angels, Lot asked his wife for some salt, which she stingily refused; her turning into a pillar of salt was poetic justice for that refusal. The lack of hospitality is also connected to inverted forms of sexuality and fertility; the inhospitable people of Sodom use sexual activity as a weapon, with which they seek to punish Lot and his guests, and, ultimately Lot, a victim of Sodom's fate, procreates with his own daughters.How is one to explain this linking of hospitality to a healthy intimacy and resultant fertility on the one hand, and inhospitable behavior with unproductive, aggressive, and inappropriate sexuality and infertility on the other? It seems to me that the ability to welcome and be 'with' a stranger, someone with whom you are not intimate, and who is not a member of your circle of friends or relatives, is located in the same emotional and psychological space in which being able to be 'with' those with whom we are intimate is located. If my selfishness, or insecurity, or fear, make it impossible for me to warmly welcome the stranger, and force me, as with the people of Sodom, to violently reject any interaction with the 'other', those same emotions will make it impossible for me to warmly embrace those with whom I am supposed to be, and would like to be, intimate. Abraham's ability to feel and care for a stranger, which even extended to the wicked people of Sodom, for whose sake he was willing to argue with God, is part and parcel of his ability to feel and care for, and be intimate with his wife, Sarah. Out of this intimacy Yitzchak is born. The people of Sodom, gripped by insecurity and fear of the 'other', were ultimately unable to feel anything but that same fear and mistrust for everyone, making real love and intimacy impossible. They, along with Lot's wife, who, by looking back expressed her solidarity with them and disassociation from her husband and daughters, have had their ability to be intimate with those close to them perverted by their inability to reach out to those with whom they are not intimate. This sin, this shortcoming, continues to haunt Lot, as, after losing his wife, his relationship with those closest to him, his daughters, is perverted as well. The parsha of Vayeira teaches us to be like Abraham and Sarah, and warmly welcome strangers into our lives. Their story, along with the tragedy of Sodom and Amora, and of Lot and his family, shows us that the Mitzvah of welcoming the stranger extends equally to those we love, as they are, ultimately, also strangers, guests, whom we must also learn to welcome into our lives. Shabbat Shalom,Shimon Felix

Torah Portion Summary - Vayeira

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