Parshat Vayera includes some of the most deeply formative narratives in Torah: the birth of Isaac and Ishmael; the promise of nationhood to Abraham’s descendants through Sarah and Hagar; and the momentous binding of Isaac.
Vayera is also the parsha that was to be studied on 18 Cheshvan last year: Shabbat, Oct. 27, 2018. In any other year, any of its stories would call out for study. But this Shabbat this year is also the first Hebrew-calendar yahrzeit for those lost that fateful day — a day on which three of the Pittsburgh Jewish community’s congregations never had a chance to study Parshat Vayera. And so a different set of teachings in the parsha comes to the fore. Chapters 18 and 19 offer three profiles of behavior and experience regarding encounters with strangers: Abraham, Lot and the people of Sodom.
In chapter 18, Abraham is sitting alone in the shade of his tent during the heat of the day when three strangers suddenly appear. Far from acting suspicious, he “runs to greet them,” and invites them to rest and refresh themselves. Humbly, he offers to fetch them water and “a morsel of bread” but then goes to great lengths to provide them a feast: cakes made fresh from the “finest flour” and meat from one of the best animals in his herd. His example of how to treat strangers is one of hospitality offered with extraordinary chesed (lovingkindness). Indeed, the Talmud teaches (Shab. 127a) that “hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.” The Torah text then makes clear that these strangers were in fact messenger-angels. The teaching from Abraham’s experience: Assume that any stranger might be divinity in disguise, and offer hospitality on that assumption.
Later, hearing of the divine intention to destroy the sinful city of Sodom, Abraham bargains with God on its behalf, arguing that if there are even as few as 10 righteous people in Sodom, the city should not be totally destroyed. God acquiesces to Abraham’s point of view. Abraham’s experience here teaches: Be not only a person of chesed, but also one with sechel (common-sense wisdom).
In chapter 19, Abraham’s nephew Lot — who had left his own clan to take up residence as a stranger in sinful Sodom — is “sitting at the gate” among that town’s elders and rises to welcome two “divine messengers” as they arrive in Sodom. He immediately invites them to spend the night at his home, where they can rest and “bathe their feet.” They’re reluctant but he insists, so they go with him and he makes a feast for them. Although his sechel was clearly weak (why did he choose to live in Sodom in the first place?), Lot still shows chesed in the hospitality he quickly offers to the strangers.
But Lot’s attempt at hospitality is thwarted when a threatening mob of the “townspeople of Sodom” — his neighbors — surround his house and demand that he turn his two guests over to them. Panicked, Lot tries to protect his visitors and pleads with the mob not to “commit such a wrong.” But the mob then turns on him: “This fellow [Lot] came here as an alien, and already he acts like the ruler!” In that moment Lot learns that, even though he tried to assimilate, Sodom has never fully accepted him. Indeed, Lot is saved from injury or death at the hands of the mob only because his two visitors quickwittedly pull him back inside his house. Apparently, this was the way that Sodom “welcomed” all strangers: with neither chesed nor sechel.
What happens when we encounter strangers? What is our responsibility for one another’s well-being? What are our obligations? How do we balance the desire to offer hospitality with the need for safety? Vayera offers three approaches: Abraham (with both chesed and sechel); Lot (chesed but not much sechel); and the people of Sodom (neither chesed nor sechel).
We’d wish to react like Abraham when we encounter those different from us, not like the people of Sodom, and Lot presents an uncomfortable but all-too-familiar middle path. But we also wonder whether even Abraham could have successfully dealt with a traumatic situation such as the one Lot — or the congregations at the Tree of Life building — faced: Congregations that were following the Abrahamic model encountered a Sodomic stranger who, bent on evil, took advantage of the synagogue’s hospitality and, instead of rewarding the synagogue for its welcome, murdered and maimed those inside. The surrounding Pittsburgh community responded with an outpouring of chesed coupled with the sechel of increased security, defense training, workshops on vigilance and self-protection and trauma counseling.
Perhaps for us all, this year’s teaching from Vayera should be to keep Abraham’s chesed as our ideal for encountering strangers, while we learn from Lot’s experience that expanding our sechel is also necessary if we are to deal compassionately yet effectively with an increasingly complex world. pjc
Rabbi Doris J. Dyen is the rabbi of the Makom HaLev chavurah and a member of Congregation Dor Hadash. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.