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Welcoming the stranger
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Welcoming the stranger

Vayera — Genesis 18:1-22:24

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Abraham is sitting at the door of his tent when he sees three men. And even though, as the rabbis tell us, he is recuperating from his self-administered circumcision, he jumps up, runs to greet them, and invites them to be his guests. He offers them water to wash and a shady place to rest and tells them he will fetch a bit of bread. Abraham runs into the tent to ask Sarah to bake cakes from the finest flour and then to the pasture to select a calf to be prepared for the meal. And while the main meal is being prepared, he brings a snack to his guests and waits on them while they eat.

Abraham is gracious and respectful to his guests, making it clear that he is honored by their presence. He rushes to provide for their needs and, rather than bragging, delivers more than he had promised from the very best his household has to offer.

This is no small thing. Hahnasat orhim, welcoming guests, hospitality, is included among those mitzvot for which a person is rewarded both in this world and the next. In fact, the gemara in Shabbat says: Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav, “Hahnasat orhim is greater than welcoming the Shechina [divine presence], for it is written (18:3), ‘My lords [Adonai], if it please you, do not go on past your servant.’” Remarkably, Rabbi Yehuda reads this verse as Abraham speaking to God (Adonai) rather than to the travelers (my lords). That is, God had appeared and was speaking with Abraham when Abraham noticed the travelers and asked God to wait while he ran to greet them!

But if Abraham is the outstanding practitioner of hahnasat orhim, what can we say about Lot who, as our parsha tells us, welcomed the same travelers when they came to Sodom?

Surely we might argue that Lot’s hospitality was far greater than Abraham’s, because the defining sin of Sodom was not, as you might have thought, sodomy, but selfishness and inhospitality. According to the midrash, Sodom was a place of great wealth which its citizens could accumulate with little effort. But its people were so selfish that they actually enacted laws making it a capital offense to offer so much as a crust of bread to a poor person or a traveler. Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer says that they even screened the tops of their trees so that a bird flying by would not be able to pluck a piece of fruit.

In this environment, Lot’s hospitality was not only an act of generosity, but one of supreme courage. So why don’t we associate Lot with the mitzva of hahnasat orhim? The obvious answer is that he completely blew it when he offered to give the mob his daughters if they would only leave his guests alone. As the rabbis note: In the ordinary way, a man sacrifices his own life to save that of his daughters or wife, while this one hands over his daughters to be abused!

In his collection Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg states: Why is Abraham regarded as the paradigm of hospitality, and not Lot? In regard to Lot, the Torah states, “The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening.” (19:1) It was only because they looked like distinguished people — like angels — that Lot invited them into his house, whereas in the case of Abraham we are told, “Looking up, he saw three men standing near him” (18:2) — three plain people, and nevertheless “he ran to meet them.” That is the true way of hospitality.

Who wouldn’t be eager to play host to an extraordinary guest? Imagine having your favorite writer, actor, or public official over for dinner. Certainly you would welcome your guest as Abraham welcomed his — and this is what Lot did. But Abraham went all out for guests he believed were ordinary, unimportant passersby.

I’m reminded of one of Dennis Prager’s frequently repeated bits of advice. Speaking about someone hoping to find his or her future spouse, he says that when you go out on a date pay particular attention to how your date treats the waiter. Your date is trying to make a good impression on you and will make every effort to treat you well. The way your date treats the waiter is how you can expect to be treated once your date begins to take you for granted.

We don’t reveal our character by the way we deal with the rich and famous. The true test of character is how we treat all the people we encounter each and every day.

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