Drash on Parashat Vayera
Rabbi Stan Zamek
United Jewish Congregation of Hong Kong
Pardon my extreme chutzpah in saying so, but I don’t care for how Parashat Vayera begins. The Torah gives away too much too soon. The first verse is a spoiler: “The LORD appeared to him (to Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre.” We know immediately that these men are not men at all, but rather emissaries of God. It would be better if we, like Abraham, learned this later.
If we were making a movie of the visit of the three mysterious strangers to Abraham’s tent, we would not tip our hand as the parasha does. Instead we would have a “cold open.” Without exposition or dialog, the action would just begin. We would join a story in progress.
We would start with an establishing shot of the desert— heat shimmers coming off the rocky ground in the merciless sun of midday. Then our focus would shift to a man alone in the immensity of the wilderness. We see a wizened old sheik, sitting at the entrance of a tent. He is alert-- squinting into the sun, scanning the area. He is clearly looking for something.
The camera lingers on him. What is he looking for? Nothing seems to be moving out there-- not a bird, not a lizard. With the sun high in the sky, the desert is a lifeless furnace. Why not retreat into the shade of the tent?
Then he sees something. Figures in the distance, passing the old man's campsite. He bolts from tent toward the figures. Does he see them as a threat? It would be reasonable to assume so, but he carries no weapon. Despite his age, he closes the gap quickly, nimble as a wild goat. The figures resolve from a blur into three travelers. They must be madmen to be out at this time of day. And where are their animals? Why don’t they have any baggage? Seemingly, they have appeared out of nowhere.
Only now is there dialog. The old man says: “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant." He points back toward his camp as he says: "Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on — seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” And They reply: “Do as you have said.”
We should forget the first verse of the parasha and try and see these events through Abraham's eyes. For him it really is a cold open. Abraham acts before any Divine communication. Not knowing that God is present, Abraham is revealed as he truly is. His goodness is his nature. It is not for show. Knowing nothing about these strangers, he exerts himself for their comfort and safety. And instead of a sip of water and a morsel of bread, Abraham sets his whole household to work laying out a feast for them and attends to their needs himself. As the Rabbis say, “the righteous say little, but do much.”
The tent of Abraham and Sarah is a holy place, but not because messengers of God lodged there. Just the opposite. It becomes sacred space when strangers who could have been anyone from anywhere are welcomed into its shade. This is what makes Abraham and Sarah masters of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests. Their tent is an icon of openness and acceptance.
The Midrash tells us that Abraham's kindness to the three men in our parasha was not an isolated incident. It was Abraham’s custom to be on the lookout for wayfarers and to bring them into the cooling shade of his tent, so that he and Sarah could feed and care for them. What for us would be extraordinary hospitality was the norm for Abraham and Sarah.
We see here a model for our communities. It is not enough for us to enjoy the comfort, the community, and the holiness of our tent. We need to bring other people in. There are spiritual wayfarers who need what we have. There are those who are lost and may not even know it. There are wanderers who are estranged from the house of Israel. Humbly, kindly, without self-righteousness we need to let these brothers and sisters know that there is good food here. We need to offer shelter from the broiling sun of an impersonal world, a world that may be rich in material comforts, but is also a desert thirsting for meaning. This is the mission of the children of Abraham and Sarah.
Every shul describes itself as “warm and welcoming.” It would not be very good marketing to tout a synagogue as “your cold, aloof, and clannish home away from home.” But how do we look to wayfarers? Do those who are still outside our mishpacha get the Abraham and Sarah treatment? Do we convey, with our words and our actions, “do not go on past your servant?” Perhaps we do. Perhaps we don’t.
Our tents, our communities, are not made holy by God. They are made holy by us, when we are alert for the passage of the lost and lonely and run to greet them with a morsel of bread, a sip of water, and an offer of respite from the harshness of the world.