How to do, and how not to do, hospitality.
Shabbat Vayera 5780, 16th November 2019
This week’s Sidra gives us contrasting pictures of hospitality. Our Torah reading tells us that Abraham is blessed by God and treated by God as a friend. It also tells us that God plans to destroy the city of Sodom. The passages either side explain the reasons. Before our episode, we read about the warm welcome that Abraham and Sarah extend to three unknown strangers. Abraham runs to greet them and he and Sarah offer them the best of their flock. They are brought in and given food and drink. Following our episode, we see a very different picture in Sodom. When the men - who turn out to be God’s messengers - arrive there, they are denied entry and when Lot, Abraham’s nephew, brings them into his home, he is threatened by the people of Sodom. The Talmud elaborates on the evil-doing of Sodom: ‘When a poor person happened to come there, each person would give him a dinar, (a gold coin) and write his name on it, but they would not bring him any bread. When he died, each person would come and take back his [dinar].’
For Abraham, nothing was too much when it came to welcoming strangers. Biblical commentators remind us that he had only just been circumcised, at the age of 99. He would have been weary and in pain and yet he rushed to greet the men he saw in the distance. The men of Sodom, by contrast, failed to respond to the men who were on their doorstep, tired and weary from their wanderings. They gladly watched as the poor died in front of them, anxious only to profit from their death.
If we look at our society now, it seems that we are closer to the men of Sodom than to Abraham in the way we behave. For Abraham, strangers were people like himself. He knew that if he did not extend a welcome to them they would die in the desert. To reach out to them and welcome them as fellow human beings was natural and right. For the men of Sodom, strangers posed a threat because they took their resources and brought no obvious benefit. This week, the issue of immigration was again raised in the election campaign, and again the picture was presented of immigrants as a threat, people competing for jobs and resources. But it is not only immigrants that are seen as strangers and a threat. People who have been here for generations but who look different have suffered renewed persecution in recent years, with rises in racism, anti-semitism and islamophobia. Homeless people on the streets are seen as ‘vagrants’, who bring no benefit to society and so can be ignored or even attacked. They are dying on our streets in increasing numbers and we are becoming immune to their deaths, just as the people of Sodom did not care who died through lack of care. Phrases such as ‘stranger danger’ and ‘bogus asylum seeker’ have alienated us from one another so that we no longer see people in need as fellow human beings, but rather see them as a threat. When an asylum seeker has their application turned down they are left destitute, with no means at all of support.
Anyone whose lifestyle is different is seen as not belonging. This is particularly true of Romani and Traveller communities, who have a nomadic lifestyle. This is the way they have lived life for hundreds of years, and the way of life our ancestors, too, followed when they began life as a people. Romani people are still known as ‘Gypsies’, even though it is not the name they call themselves by and has negative connotations, as in the song sung by Cher: ‘Gypsies, tramps and thieves.’ Few people have been persecuted as on such a scale as the Romani and Sinti people, who were sent to the extermination camps alongside the Jews by the Nazis. Their lifestyle has frequently been threatened. The number of sites for Romani and travellers provided by local authorities has been drastically reduced and when new sites are proposed there are protests and by local people, often using virulent language.
The Talmud passage about Sodom ends with this disturbing tale:
There was a certain young girl who took bread out to a poor man in a pitcher. The matter was discovered. She was covered in honey and put on the parapet of a wall and the bees came and consumed her. This is what is meant by the verse, 'And the Eternal One said, “The cry of Sodom and Gomorra, because it is great”' (Gen. 18:20). Rav Judah said in the name of Rav, making a pun in the Hebrew, ’Because of the matter of the young girl’’ Through their callousness, the people of Sodom brought about their own destruction because God heard the cry of the young girl and determined to destroy the city.
We are perilously close to the actions of the people of Sodom. When will we learn instead to follow Abraham, who is known to Jews as Avraham avinu, Abraham our father? Abraham our ancestor saw strangers in need as fellow human beings and treated them as friends. May we, too, learn to reach out to those in need, responding to the call of Leviticus to love the stranger, because we have been strangers too.