Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayera

This week’s portion always makes me cringe. From Abraham’s circumcision recovery, the death of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the binding of Isaac, this is just a physically and emotionally painful portion. Anytime I can look at this text and see something unique and healing … it is a good thing!

So, trying not to rehash the same themes that we usually share, I thought about our commitment to homelessness awareness and the dignity of the stranger. As the portion begins, Abraham sits in the opening of his tent, having just circumcised himself, greeting three strangers who appear veritably from nowhere. He greets them, “My Lords, if now I have found favor in your eyes, pass not away, I beg you, from your servant.” (18:4). The Rabbis go off in all different directions on the words and syntax of this comment. “Lord” can certainly mean God. “Adoni” is just as certainly also possibly a term of respect for any man. Whether three individuals are angels or not is certainly up for debate. Of the many ways in which we have used this text, I found two that I could not ignore.

First, the somewhat easy reading of the text can inform us that Abraham is addressing the guests, asking them and the others not to pass by his tent without availing themselves of his hospitality. Even in his own recovery, he is concerned for the dignity and well being of his guests. We learn an important faith value that welcoming the stranger is more important than our discomfort. Welcoming them with the utmost of dignity affirms their humanity, not their stature. While we have most often assumed these individuals to be angels, the text does not say it is with any finitude.

This first lesson, though, feeds the second and (in my opinion) more profound rendering of text. We do refer to God as Adonai (without vowels, Adoni and Adonai are the same words). Perhaps Abraham does acknowledge God, and according to Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav asks God to stand by while he attends to his guests. In his ongoing prayer, he invoked God’s name, as if to say, “Hold on.” He then addressed the men. Rav Yehudah taught us that taking in guests is greater than receiving even the Divine Presence. Welcoming the stranger is more important than even prayer.

Throughout this episode, God/angel tells Abraham that Sodom has sinned. God will destroy the city. Now, I know that accusations of sexual sin top the list of popular accusations, but the text fails to concretely tell us. It does, however, demonstrate that the people of the city are horrible to the poor and the stranger. “Because the cry of [the victims of] Sodom and Gomorrah is great, and because their sin is very grievous (18:20).”

From Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer (dating as far as 1700 years ago), we get the Midrash, “In Sodom, it was decreed: “’Whoever hands a piece of bread to a pauper or stranger shall burn at the stake.’”

From the Talmud, Sanhedrin, “a. If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a dinar, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was sold to him. When he died, each came and took back his dinar.” And b. “A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, hiding it in a pitcher. When the matter became known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her.”

Putting it all together, the greatest sin, the sin worthy of destruction is ignoring the needs of the stranger. Taking care of the stranger is so important that talking to God has to wait until after you have fulfilled your obligation. I don’t see it as much of a stretch to say, ignoring the needs of the stranger bars an individual from talking with God. Prayer is without value where one fails to live the prayer in his/her daily life and behavior.

I am a big proponent of prayer, so, we need to put ourselves in a position to be heard – we have to do the sacred work of welcome and engagement. Shabbat Shalom.