Parshat Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent, during the hottest part of the day. Last week’s parshah ended with Abraham performing a brit milah on all of the male members of the household, including himself.
The midrash connects them together, explaining that it is the third day after Abraham circumcised himself, at 100 years of age. This is when the pain of the recovery is most intense.
So there he is, sitting in his tent. It’s hot. He’s in pain. He looks up, and he see three distant figures approaching.
So what does he do? Remember, this is the Middle East.
He does not reach for his shotgun. He does not turn the other way, and pretend he didn’t see them. He does not send one of his able-bodied servants to go find out who they are.
No, he rushes out to greet them. He bows to the ground, and insists that they come in to rest.
“You must be tired, come in for a while. Relax in the shade. Wash your feet. Have something to eat and drink.”
The three men agree, and Abraham starts rushing about, instructing household to to prepare food and drink for them. He slaughters a calf himself. While they are eating, Abraham stands before them, waiting on them like a servant.
Abraham’s behavior is remarkable. While there is a code of hospitality in the Middle East, Abraham goes above and beyond it. It is not only that Abraham and Sarah had an “open-door” policy, welcoming visitors to their home. They practiced radical hospitality.
This is not normal behavior. Most of us, if we were recuperating from surgery, would not want to throw a dinner party and invite all our friends, not to mention strangers. The kind of person who practices radical hospitality is the kind of person who has that quality down to his core. Abraham is that kind of guy.
How does a person get like that?
Well, there is the rare person, like Abraham, who is simply born with that kind of generous spirit But for most of us, it takes education from an early age.
Perhaps that explains the blessing that comes at the end of Abraham’s encounter with the three men, who turn out to have been angels.
“I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.” (Genesis 18:19)
Character is built through education. Part of God’s blessing to Abraham is a charge to instructs his children so that they become “that kind of person.”
What does it mean to be children of Abraham? To serve. To recognize that our obligations to others go beyond the narrow circles of our families and friends. It extends to people we don’t know. It may even extend to people who hold different values than us.
Two of the angels leave Abraham’s presence, and Abraham is left talking with God. God reveals the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two depraved cities whose wickedness has provoked God’s anger.
Abraham boldly responds to God’s revelation with a challenge. “Ha-shofet kol ha-aretz lo ya-aseh mishpat? Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?” This begins Abraham’s pleading with God to save the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of the merit of 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally just 10 righteous people living among them. Abraham is making this argument on behalf of people who do not share his values, people who probably deserve the punishment that God is about to mete out against them.
Indeed, Abraham has lived up to the blessing that God has just bestowed upon him.
As Jews, we look to Abraham as our Patriarch. God’s covenant with him, and Abraham’s behavior, model for us the kind of role we are asked to have in the world. And the message is that our compassion towards others, our concern for justice, must not be limited to our own. It is clear from both of these stories that compassion must extend to people outside the circles of our families and friends. Our pursuit of justice must reach those who do not necessarily share the same values and beliefs as us.
As Abraham’s descendants, we are asked to instruct our collective children about was is just and right. The goal is to turn them into the kind of people who would rush out of their homes to take care of someone whom they did not know, or stand up to shout for compassion and justice on behalf of others.
That kind of training happens when we surround the next generation by a community that expresses those values through action on a regular basis.
The Torah subtly demonstrates how this kind of moral education can be successful. One chapter later, the scene shifts to the city of Sodom. Abraham’s nephew Lot happens to live there. Lot’s father had died young, and so he grew up in Abraham and Sarah’s household, where he was raised by his Aunt and Uncle. He must have learned something by their example.
When two of the three angels that had visited Abraham continue their travel, they go to Sodom. This is how the Torah describes what happens when they get there:
“The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.'” (Genesis 19:1-2)
It seems that Lot learned a lot growing up in his aunt and uncle’s home. He has become the kind of person who practices radical hospitality. God’s blessing of Abraham was well-placed. May we live up to it.