If you’ve ever been fortunate enough to attend a conference or gathering where Dr Ron Wolfson was a guest speaker, you’d remember one of his introductory sessions that dealt with hospitality and how we relate to others. Dr Wolfson uses a story in this week’s parasha to illustrate the importance of welcoming others into our synagogues.
The story, which appears at the very beginning of this week’s parasha, tells of Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent on a hot day. He sees three figures approaching, and he immediately gets up and runs to greet them, and then invites them into his tent for some respite from the heat, as well as a meal – not just any meal, one made from choice flour and the finest animal. This incredible display of hospitality is made even more extraordinary by the fact that Abraham was actually recovering from having circumcised himself, at the age of ninety-nine, no less.
The message that Dr Wolfson builds upon explores Abraham’s strong focus on easing the plight of the strangers that appear before him, and to make sure that despite his weakened state recovering from his circumcision, these strangers are afforded the highest level of benevolence on every level, providing the best of everything available. Every effort is made to make them feel welcome.
Moreover, there is a sense of personal obligation in Abraham’s actions. The Ramban (Nachmanides) notes that Abraham had many servants and helpers, yet he did not instruct any of them to arrange something for the guests while he sat watching. He took on the responsibility himself.
We also note there is a sense of urgency around the language and actions in this story. ‘Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it’ (Genesis 18:6-7).
From the overall presentation of the event, through to the finer details, we learn about the importance of making others feel welcome in a manner that is significant to us, which conveys our intentions to our guests, letting them know we are genuine in our efforts.
Abraham’s intentions and actions are a reminder that we have a duty and responsibility to extend hospitality in a meaningful way. We should want to treat others in the same way we would want to be treated in the same situation, at the very least.
You will never know who that stranger is until you get to know them through kindness and genuine hospitality. For Abraham and Sarah, these messengers were there to tell them that they would have a child together. For us, it is the act of helping someone else feel like they belong and they are welcomed, and it is possibly the start of a new friendship and new adventures.
It is also a simple and effective way we can bring hope and light in this world, which, as it is now, is too often filled with despair and darkness.
Rabbi Sam Zwarenstein