“As soon as (Abraham) saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.'” (Genesis 18:2-4)
According to commentators, Abraham’s and Sarah’s eagerness to receive the three strangers demonstrates the sacred value of hospitality (in Hebrew: “hachnasat orchim” – literally, “receiving of guests.”) Since we are told from the outset that this visit represents a divine revelation (18:1), the implication could not be clearer: receiving guests in our home is tantamount to bringing God’s presence into our midst.
Even more powerfully, this story suggests we must, like Abraham and Sarah, be particularly open and welcoming to the stranger. (According to the Midrash, Sarah’s tent was open on all four sides for precisely this reason: all were welcome.) In Jewish tradition, hospitality represents much more than mere etiquette: it is a profound moral challenge. This is all the more critical in our day – in the age of security fences, border guards and gated communities, true hachnasat orchim is fast becoming difficult, if not impossible to contemplate.
To drive this point home, Vayera contrasts the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah with the inhospitality of the citizens of Sodom. The Midrash, in fact, is replete with references to their brutal and inhumane treatment of the strangers in their midst. Indeed, this “radical inhospitality” is the true sin of Sodom. Though the Sodomites are more popularly associated with homosexuality, it is their attempt to rape and brutalize Lot’s guests – not their sexuality – that defines their crime.
Recent events in Jerusalem give our Torah portion a sadly ironic relevance. A Gay Pride march in Jerusalem, planned for today, was cancelled due to widespread threats of violence by ultra-orthodox demonstrators. (At last year’s parade, three parade participants were stabbed by an individual who was later arrested). Jerusalem police were preparing to mobilize 12,000 officers, which would have made it the most heavily secured event in the history of the State of Israel. Yesterday, it was announced that the organizers of the parade, Jerusalem Open House, had decided to hold the event in a stadium, rather than risk the possibility of more violence.
In the end, this radical inhospitality to a peaceful display of pride and tolerance in Jerusalem begs the question: who are the real Sodomites?