"Abraham and the Three Angels" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Abraham and the Three Angels" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

How do we offer hospitality in this day and age? 

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Vayera

Genesis 18:1–22:24


“Abraham planted a tamarisk tree at Beersheva, and invoked there the name of the Eternal, the everlasting God.” (Genesis 21:33)

This quiet moment of hope and healing could easily slip by unnoticed in one of the most iconic portions of the Torah.

After all, it’s no easy task to compete with divine messengers who promise a child for Sarah, the extended catastrophe of Sodom and Gomorrah, the birth of Isaac and the exile of Hagar and Ishmael, the “she is my sister” incident with King Abimelech and subsequent pact that established Beersheva and the binding of Isaac … all in one parashah!

But here is Abraham, alone in God’s presence, planting a tamarisk, an eshel tree, within which are the seeds of one of Torah’s most enduring lessons.

Eshel, spelled aleph-shin-lamed, has long been read as an acronym for achilah-shtiyah-linah — eating-drinking-finding shelter.

With this tree, and his calling on the Divine, Abraham embodies the deeply held Jewish and pastoral value of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests).

Like a comforting roadside promise of “gas, food, lodging,” Abraham’s tamarisk is a reliable signpost in Vayera, a chaotic series of narratives in which, at every turn of the text, hospitality (or the lack thereof) features prominently in the unfolding events:

Example 1: Abraham and Sarah extend gracious, expansive hospitality to the “three men” who visit them, even as Abraham recovers from dramatic surgery.

Example 2: Lot houses the same divine messengers in Sodom, but the townspeople show the antithesis of hospitality, demanding that Lot produce his guests to be brutally defiled. He doesn’t, but the fate of the cities is sealed.

Example 3: As Sodom and Gomorrah burn, Lot’s wife looks back and turns to salt, which some interpret to mean that she was an ungracious hostess, stingy with seasonings. (Countless explanations abound for the fate of Mrs. Lot, many focusing more compassionately on her weeping for her lost home and children.)

Example 4: The strange episode of Sarah entering King Abimelech’s palace offers a twisted notion of hospitality, where women were often “taken in” to the harems of ancient rulers. A plague of barrenness descends on the royal household as a result, a situation rectified only after Abimelech invites Abraham hospitably to settle “wherever you please” in his land.

Example 5: The grand weaning party for Isaac likely featured a wide guest list and lavish preparations. But the celebration ends abruptly when Sarah, offended by Ishmael’s “laughter,” throws him and his mother, Hagar, out of Abraham’s house forever. We live to this very day with the fallout from this ancient household rupture.

Vayera’s theme of hospitality overflows heavily into the prophetic reading from Second Kings that accompanies it. Here, the value of hachnasat orchim is even more explicit.

The famous “Shunammite woman” offered Elisha the Prophet a meal every time he came to town, and “once, she said to her husband, ‘I am sure it is a holy Man of God who comes this way regularly. Let us make a small, enclosed upper chamber and place a bed, a table, a chair, and a lampstand there for him, so that he can stop there whenever he comes to us.’” (2 Kings 4:8-10)

Like Sarah, the Shunammite woman had no children. Elisha’s pronouncement that she would have a son in a year’s time appears to stem directly from the hospitality and kindness she showed the prescient traveler.

“Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence,” the Sages teach (BT Shabbat 127a). The earliest chapters of our Jewish family history are a veritable portrait album of homes, hearths and hearts open to strangers, to newcomers and to new possibilities. They also remind us of the potential consequences of failure to adhere to the ancient desert codes.

Hospitality is in short order these days. Even if we yearn to have an “open tent,” the pandemic has been a nearly impossible time for welcoming guests to our homes. Many synagogues remain at least partially closed, with needed opportunities for hachnasat orchim scarce and tentative.

In the 21st century, it sadly takes a true act of faith to open one’s home, backyard, car or any other “private” domain to a stranger in need. And in our United States, we reckon continually with the promise on the base of Lady Liberty’s pedestal. Does our hospitality really extend to tired, poor, huddled masses “yearning to breathe free?”

Henri Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian whose teachings on pastoral care are beloved in seminaries of multiple religious traditions. On “welcoming the other” he wrote, “Hospitality means primarily the creation of free space where the stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place. It is not to bring men and women over to our side, but to offer freedom not disturbed by dividing lines.”

In places where those who wander are provided for, welcomed, hugged, sheltered and comforted, the spirit of Abraham’s eshel tree is there, as is the spirit of the Divine to which he called. May those spaces be ones of transformation and growth, and may they be many and blessed.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at rabbishanachandlerleon@gmail.com.