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Dvar Torah on Parshat Vayeira

Parashat Hashavua Vayeira 2006 / 5767 -

09.11.2006 by
This week's parsha, Vayeira, opens with Abraham convalescing from his very recent circumcision. He sees three strangers passing by, and, in spite of his condition, gets up and runs to greet them, invites them to join him, offers them food and drink, and graciously waits on them as they refresh themselves. This behavior is seen as a model for the traditional Jewish value of hachnassat orchim - welcoming guests into the home - as well as a window into Abraham's character: caring, sensitive to the needs of others, and generous in his desire to help everyone, even strangers. The Rabbis, in a Midrash, notice an interesting detail in Abraham's hospitality. The Torah tells us that Abraham said to his guests "Please, let some water be brought to you, and wash your feet, and recline under the tree. Let me bring you a bit of bread, that you may eat, then afterwards you may continue on your journey...". The Rabbis point out that Abraham asks the travelers to first wash their feet, and only then rest and be fed. Rashi (11th century, France) explains: "He thought they were Arabs, who bow down to the dust on their feet [this seems to be a bit of an anachronism, at best, but let's leave it], and he was careful to not allow idol worship to enter his home...". Rashi is explaining why Abraham insisted that his guests first wash their feet before doing anything else - he suspected that they were pagans, and did not want them to engage in their dust-centered religious activity in his house. This presents us with an interesting insight into Abraham's hospitality. On the one hand, he is welcoming, even gracious, to people he believes to be idol worshippers. He treats them with respect, generosity, and what look likes real warmth. On the other hand, he is not completely open to them, he is not willing to accept uncritically every aspect of their personalities. In the way Rashi explains it, he draws a line at the threshold of his home. Abraham is willing to invite anyone in, and treat them as honored guests, but there are ground rules. There are behaviors which Abraham will not allow into his home, behaviors which he is willing to accept in others, but which must be left outside when he invites them in. This is a powerful model for us to think about. The hospitality and kindness which Abraham shows to the ultimate "other" - dirt-worshipping Arabs - is certainly a challenge to us in terms of the limits of our openness, and how far we are really willing to go in accepting and welcoming the different, the strange, the other. At the same time, we are also being taught that there are limits to what Abraham will accept, limits to what he is willing to allow into his home. His home, though a hospitable place, is not a value-free place, in which anything goes and every behavior is welcome; there are behaviors which, in his personal space, Abraham is unwilling to even tolerate. Somehow, Abraham manages to square this circle: he succeeds in being warm, gracious, generous, and welcoming to his guests, while maintaining the integrity of his position against what is a central element of their worldview and belief system. This, then, is the challenge which Abraham's behavior presents to us: to be, on the one hand, welcoming to and supportive of the stranger, to recognize his or her humanity, as well as his or her right to an opinion with which we disagree, while, at the same time, making the moral and ethical distinctions which we feel need to be made in our world, our community, and, especially, our home. Can we, like Abraham, be open and caring enough to invite the other in, but strong and honest enough to, at the same time, maintain and insist upon our own moral/ethical standards and beliefs? Shabbat Shalom,Rabbi Shimon Felix

Torah Portion Summary - Vayeira

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