Vayera: The Open Tent

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2009

Shalom one and all! I’m pleased to announce that my weekly commentaries now come in two formats. You can continue getting this weekly email, or you can use rss or another service to subscribe to the following blog:

I hope over the course of the year to upload all my archives to the blog, where they can be categorized by parsha and holiday.

OK- onward and upward. This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, which opens up with the famous scene of Avraham sitting in the opening of his tent:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.  Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them . . . . . .  (Bereshit/ Genesis 18:1-2)

Now, at the end of the previous Torah portion, Avraham circumcises himself, so the rabbis assume he’s sitting in the tent because he’s resting and recovering from the procedure; if so, that makes his spirited hospitality even more remarkable. In fact, the rabbis say that Avraham was sitting in the opening of the tent- not inside it- precisely so that he could welcome any strangers who might pass by.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see how Avraham became the paradigmatic practitioner of hachnasat orchim, or welcoming of guests, which is in turn understood as a specific practice within the general value of gemilut hassadim, or “acts of lovingkindness.”

OK, so far, so good, but I promised you that this year we were going to look at links between Jewish prayer and the weekly Torah portion- and here it is, in the form of a passage from the Talmud which is recited every morning after the blessing for the mitzvah [commandment] of Torah study:

“These are things that yield interest during your life, while the principal remains for you in the world-to-come: honoring your father and mother, doing kindness, arriving early to study morning and evening, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, providing for the bride, burying the dead, paying attention to prayer, bringing peace between one person and another; and the study of Torah is like them all [talmud torah keneged kulam].”

(from the tractate Shabbat, quoted from the prayerbook commentary My People’s Prayer Book, vol. 5: Birkhot HaShachar.)

The basic idea is that there are certain acts which bring reward in this life as well as reward in the World-To-Come, and these acts are fundamental to any understanding of a Jewish life: acts of love and generosity, prayer, and Torah study. Not only that, but in the same section of the Talmud quoted above, the ancient rabbis say that “the mitzvah of welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.”

I think we can understand that last statement by remembering that hachnasat orchim is not tzedaka, or charitable giving; it’s about establishing connections between human beings, and extending the boundaries of the self by caring for others. We can welcome rich or poor in our tents- it’s the establishment of authentic relationship (however temporary) which makes hospitality a holy act. Of course, as Rabbi Dessler taught, if hesed, lovingkindness, is about extending ourselves to give, it becomes a mitzvah for others to receive. Without the openness to receive, there can be no giving by others; without such giving of the self, there is no hesed; and without hesed, we are not truly the children of Avraham.

Shabbat Shalom,


PS- for the text of Vayera and the haftarah, go here.

and for more on hospitality as a Jewish value, go here

and here.

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