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This week's portion: in the same key

Radical Hospitality (Radical Torah repost)

A d'var Torah on parashat Vayera, written in 2006 for the now-defunct Radical Torah.

At the very beginning of this week's Torah portion, Vayera, God appears to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre, immediately on the heels of Abraham's circumcision. (Well, we read about one right after the other. Though one exegetical principle holds that Torah needn't necessarily be read in a linear way, the simple linear reading allows for the interpretation that God is here paying the first recorded pastoral care visit, a notion which pleases many of the chaplains I know.)

Then, Torah tells us, Abraham looks up and sees three men standing nearby. Immediately he leaps into action -- apparently whatever discomfort he's still suffering is minimal, or is mitigated by his strong impulse toward hospitality -- and rushes to greet them, bowing low and urging them to come, wash their feet, rest, and dine with him.

Later in the portion (at the beginning of chapter 19) the men are referred to as malachim, angels. But when they first appear to Abraham they have the aspect of ordinary men. Abraham's fervent hospitality, in other words, is his usual modus operandi. He's not offering these guys the royal treatment because he perceives them to be messengers of the Holy Blessed One. He just genuinely wants to make these men feel welcome.

A pragmatist might argue that it behooves any desert-dweller to offer life-giving water and nourishment to strangers, in order that strangers will offer him the same sustenance when he's in need, but I like to think there's more to Abraham's openness than that. For one thing, Abraham goes beyond a kind of pro forma greeting; he instructs his wife to bake bread right away, and a serving-boy to kill a fatted calf. (Which, incidentally, he serves alongside curds and milk, the dietary laws not yet having been established. Another argument for a linear reading of Torah, I guess. But I digress.)

The point is, he treats these men like beloved friends returned from afar. Granted, we learned in last week's portion that he came back from his sojourn in Egypt with sheep, oxen, donkeys and camels aplenty; he has no shortage of critters to eat. But there's no necessary correlation between wealth and generosity. Abraham may have plenty of animals, but he still made the conscious decision to slaughter one to feed strangers who materialized outside his door.

What really strikes me about Abraham is his stance, and the personal and ethical principles the stance implies. If I glanced up from my desk right now and saw three strange men standing in my yard, some part of me might be afraid. I might feel tempted to stand protectively on the threshold, door not-exactly open wide, until I could ascertain who the strangers might be. This isn't because I'm paranoid, or because I live in an unsafe place -- my small mountain town is about as friendly as anyplace I can imagine! But I still might feel an instinct to be guarded with strangers, especially strangers who appear out of nowhere.

Not so Abraham. He rises from his seat (or rug, or sick bed, depending on how the imagined scene unfolds) and rushes out to offer a shalom aleichem. He draws the men inside to rest, to wash away the dust of the road, and to dine on the finest food his wife and servant can muster. (In today's world I hope gender roles aren't so cut-and-dried, but I'm willing to cut Abraham some slack on that.) He matches words of welcome with actions that embody that welcome into being. He wants all who pass his dwelling to find sustenance there. This is radical hospitality at its finest.

The chuppah beneath which Jews marry is typically open on all four sides, and one teaching holds that in this it evokes Abraham's tent. A chuppah offers spiritual shelter, and represents the home a couple will build together, but it's not a permanent structure, nor a structure that can be entirely insular. The sense of home it represents and creates is a portable one, and one that's open to the presence of God in all directions. When we marry beneath a chuppah, we affirm our intention to be like Abraham, opening our doors and our larders to the messengers of God who appear in our lives.

What Abraham knew, and what we struggle to remember and affirm, is that the people we encounter are indeed messengers of the Holy Blessed One. The message we all bear is that we are created b'tselem Elohim, in God's image; no matter our differences, we are all reflections of the living God. When we choose to open our doors and our hearts to the people we meet, we embody the wise welcome that characterized our ancestor Abraham in his desert dwelling. As we orient ourselves in relationship to the wild and wide world, may we experience Abraham's ability to make the stranger truly welcome. It's a blessing we can offer to the people we encounter -- and in so doing, to ourselves.