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Parashat Vayeirah

November 5, 2014

Hazzan Marcia Lane

Let me just say, straight off, that choosing one or other episode from this week’s parashah, like all the parshiyot of the book of Genesis, is a tricky proposition. Shall I address the story of Abraham and Sarah and their angelic visitors, but ignore the Akedah, the binding of Isaac? For synagogues that follow the triennial reading of the Torah, the big event this week will be the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, but we will also read about the king of Gerar, Avimelech, and how he took Sarah into his household, thinking that she was Abraham’s sister. The banishment of Hagar and Ishmael? You can see the problem here; the Torah portion is simply too good. Too packed with juicy stories. But there is a thread that connects these episodes. Our Torah portion introduces two important and inter-connected mitzvot (commandments): bikkur holim (visiting the sick) and hakhnasat orhim (welcoming guests).

Three parallel stories illustrate the nature of actions performed in the context of the mitzvot of visiting the sick and of welcoming guests. The first scene in the parashah shows Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent, hoping to have the opportunity to welcome strangers into his dwelling. Unbeknownst to him, the first people he sees are messengers from God. The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 8:13 tells us that Abraham is recovering from his own circumcision (at age 99!), and that God (in the form of three human travelers) is actually performing the mitzvah of visiting the sick. The reward for a mitzvah, we learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, is the mitzvah itself, but in this case one mitzvah enables the other. Mercy begets mercy. Acts of kindness grow and blossom into other acts of kindness. Also, although commandments are reserved for humans, it seems that visiting the sick is so important that God models it for us.

In the second instance of merciful treatment of guests, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, standing by the gates of the city, sees three strangers wandering the dangerous streets of Sodom. He hurries to invite them in, encouraging them to take shelter in his house overnight and prepares a meal for them. Eventually, the three guests reveal their true nature, magically save Lot and his family, and urge them to leave the town immediately in order to escape the destruction that God is about to rain down upon Sodom and Gemorrah. This is an interesting exchange, because Lot is eager to perform the mitzvah of welcoming guests, but what he doesn’t realize is that his life is in imminent danger. In a way, these messengers too are visiting the sick, but the sick person has yet to receive the diagnosis.

The third instance of the treatment of guests comes when Abraham and Sarah are traveling to Gerar, and Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister. Since Abraham and Sarah are sojourners, ‘guests’ in the country, the king, Avimelech, is in the position of a host. He chooses to appropriate the woman. She is taken into his household where presumably she will become one of his wives. But God comes to Avimelech in a dream to tell him the true identity of the woman he has taken and to warn him of deadly consequences if he keeps her. God not only informs him of the error of this choice, but closes the wombs of all the women in his household. Essentially, God creates an aberrant medical condition which is only reversed when Avimelech returns Sarah to her husband. At this point he could banish Abraham and Sarah from his country. He could tax them or in some other way mistreat them for perpetrating a hoax. Instead, Avimelech, both out of his own integrity and conscious of God’s promise, chooses to give them gifts of money, cattle and flocks, and servants. Although the midrash insists that only God kept Avimelech from sinning, the Torah text seems to indicate that when pushed, he knew how to be a gracious host. Abraham and Sarah are treated as honored guests, and, “Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Avimemlech and his wife and his maidservants; and they bore children. For the Lord had closed up the wombs of the house of Avimelech, because of Sarah, the wife of Abraham.” (Gen. 20:17-18)

In one of the most famous speeches of Shakespearian literature, in The Merchant of Venice, the protagonist, Portia — disguised as a male barrister — defines the concept of mercy for all time:

The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes. It is mightiest in the mightiest…. It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice. (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, scene 1)

In both mitzvot — welcoming guests and visiting the sick — the best, purest performance of these actions calls for a generosity of spirit, and an abundance of mercy.

Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.