Vayeira: Transforming Strangers Into Guests

14 Nov 2016

We all know that the Jewish religion stresses the importance of guests, of hosting, of providing hospitality to strangers. What are Shabbat and the holidays (among other things) if not an opportunity to host?  When I became religious and started going to families as a guest I couldn’t believe the meals that were lavished on me. But what is so important about welcoming strangers and turning them into guests? Many of us have had guests that have driven us crazy: we couldn’t wait for them to leave. How can we see an act of hosting in a more divine light?

In the parsha, God has just appeared to Avraham after he has circumcised himself . Rabbi Ellie Monk reminds us that God does not come to Avraham here in a vision or in an ecstatic moment. No he appears while Avraham is recovering, the first visit to the sick, bikur holim.

“The divine spirit dwells neither with a man in a depressed or sorrowful state nor with one in a state of levity but with the person who is experiencing the satisfaction of performing a mitzvah.” (Shabbos, 30b)

Yet in one reading, even though God has just appeared to Avraham, Avraham excuses himself in order to greet the three wayfarers he sees as he sits outside of his tent in the desert. He feeds them and washes their feet. He is available and open to experience even though he is in the midst of a visit from the Almighty and it is the heat of the day, three days after his circumcision, when he is in fact in the most pain following the procedure that has joined him to the Jewish people. The man is in his 90s and he runs to welcome these strangers.

And God seems to wait for Avraham and Sara while they feed their guests.  In the Talmud (Shabbas 127a) Rabbi Yehuda teaches: hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekinah. How can that be? How can it be that Avraham can let the divine wait? What is so important about welcoming visitors, and about turning a wayfarer into a guest?

Maybe we can think of it this way: We are all wayfarers on his earth. We are in essence God’s guests. After all God provides us with water and food and air and clothes and a livelihood and a mind and a soul and a body. We are really visitors, even though we pretend that we will be here forever. And God provides for us, a consummate host.  What does he ask from us? That we take a day off, that we thank him, that we acknowledge his beneficence. That we don’t take him for granted. Kind of like a host.

Providing means giving, chesed. When we give to our own guests, we too embody an aspect of God. Maybe that’s why God waits for Avraham, because in a way Avraham is giving him the highest form of praise. Avraham doesn’t have to tend to God because he is imitating him.

After this act of hospitality God speaks to Avraham and Sara and tells them that at the age of 90 and 100 they will have a baby. What they have longed for and what seemed impossible can be possible: God can transcend the limits of nature. Perhaps because Avraham has transcended himself, God offers them transcendence. In essence they have earned themselves a miracle. And maybe that’s the way we all earn miracles—by going beyond our capabilities.

But I think there’s another message here. We all have things that come into our life that are strange, that feel accidental and unwanted, things that we want to reject—difficult people, illness, trauma. This parsha tells us that, unlikely as it seems, we can welcome that which seems strange and foreign and find a way to make room for it. That which was uninvited can also be turned into a guest. And when we find a way to effect this transformation, when we welcome our experience, no matter how difficult, perhaps the divine spirit will dwell with us.

Sherri Mandell is the co-director of the Koby Mandell Foundation which runs programs for bereaved families including Camp Koby. She is the author of the Road to Resilience: From Chaos to Celebration and The Blessing of a Broken Heart which won a National Jewish Book Award and has been made into a play. She is a frequent lecturer on healing and resilience. You can reach her

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.