18 Cheshvan 5773 / November 2-3, 2012
At the beginning of this week’s portion, Vayera, we find God visiting Abraham to check on him after his recent circumcision (which at age 99, was likely taking its toll physically). Modeling for us the Jewish value of bikkur cholim – visiting those who are ill – you’d think that Abraham would have been flattered that God was stopping by to hang out for a bit. Instead though, what we find is one of the more interesting interactions in the Torah. Just as God was visiting Abraham, Abraham looked up and saw three men passing by. Abraham rushes out of his tent to them (leaving God behind!) in order to greet them and to offer them food and shelter as a respite from their journey.
What. Just. Happened.?!
Abraham, our patriarch, supposedly the founder of monotheism, is being visited by his one and only God, and abandons God in favor of greeting complete strangers?
Is this simply a case of excessive hospitality?
There is a midrash that teaches us that Abraham's tent was consciously kept open so that he could see visitors coming in order to greet them in this fashion. [Genesis Rabbah 48:9]
Clearly we can learn from this episode the significant value that our tradition places on welcoming guests – including (and especially) ones that we don’t have existing relationships with.
For example, on Passover, there’s a part of the Seder (the paragraph of “Ha Lachma”) where we say: “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Many families will actually open the door to their home at this time and shout it to the street so that anyone passing by in need of a Seder will be able to come and join (granted, this model might have been more practical in Old Country where folks were living in closer, tighter quarters, although there’s certainly an argument to be made that in big cities with dense populations the ability still exists).
In the Talmud, we see Abraham’s actions used to illustrate a general (and significant) principle: “Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav: Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine.” [Bab. Talmud Shabbat 127b]
And yet, despite our people’s strong tradition of being welcoming, there are many who find today’s Jewish community to be cold and distant, rather than warm and present. People sometimes feel when they walk into synagogues that they might not be greeted warmly. Individuals will make charitable contributions to Jewish organizations, and may not receive a personal phone call expressing appreciation – rather, they’ll only receive a form thank-you letter in the mail. Someone new will move to town, may not be invited to join existing social circles, and/or may not be invited over to someone’s home for a Shabbat dinner shortly after arriving so that s/he can meet others.
We can and need to do better. Our tradition and accompanying values demand it.
This Shabbat, reflect on what you can do to be more welcoming of others.
Commit to reaching out to someone you know is new to the area and invite him/her to your home for a meal.
We learn from Shammai in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishnah dealing with the Ethics of our Ancestors, that we should “receive everyone with a cheerful face.” [Avot 1:15]
Sometimes all it takes to change the world is a smile.