Hospitality we offer reveals a societys humanity

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Genesis 18:1-22:24

II Kings 4:1-37

Vayera, this week’s Torah portion,

provides two distinct texts that focus on the contrast between evil, sin, jealousy, depravity and disregard for outsiders on the one hand, and kindness, generosity and hospitality to strangers on the other.

In the first text, the account of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Torah refers to the Hebrew word za’akah — an outrage to offer only a hint of what sin the citizens of those doomed cities committed (Genesis 18:20). In contrast, the Torah is clear that a previous society of evildoers, the generation of the flood, was destroyed because “the earth was filled with hamas — violence/lawlessness” (Genesis 6:11).

Centuries after the account of Sodom and Gomorrah was recorded, the prophet Ezekiel offered his understanding of the residents’ sins: arrogance, haughtiness, commission of abominations, self-righteousness, taking for granted abundant provisions and failure to support the poor and the needy (Ezekiel 16:49-50).

Having had little specific information about what sins the people of Sodom and Gomorrah committed, sages and scholars envisioned sins of lust and sexual depravity because this opportunistic, inhospitable people treated strangers as fair game, subject to any imaginable violation, abuse or whim.

This interpretation is based on an incident in which Lot extended hospitality to two strangers, whereupon the townspeople demanded that Lot turn them over in order that they might have intimate relations with them. For this reason, sodomy is held to be the chief transgression of the Sodomites (Genesis 19:5) and thus, the word was given its sexual connotation.

In addition, mindful of the ancient hospitality code that demands that a guest in an individual’s home be offered the absolute protection of the host, Lot tried to shield the men from harm’s way by offering his young virgin daughters instead of his guests to the Sodomites:

“I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. Look I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they come under the shelter of my roof.” (Genesis 19:7-8)

Furthermore, even Lot, who is portrayed as a solid citizen, was in fact, a flawed personality. Not only did he offer his virgin daughters to the rabble-rousers in order to protect his two guests, but a student of the Torah is surprised by a tragic account of father-daughter incest — not once but twice — unholy unions that resulted in the birth of Moab, meaning “from father,” and Ben-ammi, meaning “son of my kin” (Genesis 19:33-38).

A further moral failure read into the modest available textual information was the refusal to extend a helping hand to anyone. Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, a midrashic collection, suggests that the wealthy cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, with streets paved with gold, nevertheless, cut off access from the outside with water-filled moats designed to keep away strangers and the unfortunate. The citizens of Sodom were portrayed as merciless and cruel, having been hardened to kindness and compassion. Thus, anyone found helping the less fortunate was persecuted or even murdered.

A second text in Vayera offers a distinct contrast to the behavior of the Sodomites. It describes God’s appearance before Abraham. However, when three men seemed to materialize out of nowhere, Abraham broke off communication with God in order to offer hospitality to these strangers. He prepared a feast and offered them an opportunity to refresh themselves. So important was hospitality to Abraham that he allowed his moment of religious ecstasy to be interrupted (Genesis 18:1ff). He affirmed the important lesson that social responsibility must supercede religious needs, later articulated by the talmudic aphorism: “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the divine presence” (Shabbat 127a).

How strangers are received and the kind of hospitality that is offered reveals a community’s moral condition. Comparing these two contrasting texts and the hospitality offered to strangers provides a benchmark for a society’s humanity, a standard for civility in any age.

Stephen S. Pearce is senior rabbi at the Reform Congregation Emanu-El

in San Francisco.