Life's Concentric Circles
God appeared to Avraham in Elonei Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. When he lifted up his eyes he saw three men standing before him. When he saw them, he ran towards them from the entrance of the tent and bowed down to the ground. He said: "My Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes then do not journey past your servant. Let some water be brought to wash your feet, as you seat yourselves under the shade of the tree. I will bring some bread so that you might fill yourselves and then you can continue on your journey. [Let me do so] since you have passed by your servant. They said: "Do as you have spoken" (Bereishit 18:1-5).
So begins Parashat Vayera with a striking example of Avraham's hospitality. Though the text does not indicate the exact chronology of the episode, we do know that it unfolds at the "heat of the day." Avraham is already an old man, his wife Sarah no longer capable of conception, but neither age nor the infirmity that typically accompanies it will prevent him from welcoming the guests. Spying them from his vantagepoint at the entrance of his tent, the hot midday wind swirling around him, he runs to greet the strangers and then prevails upon them to pause for a meal. Though he only speaks of bread, in the end it is a banquet that he and his household set before them, all of it prepared with alacrity and haste:
Avraham HURRIED to Sarah who was in the tent and he said: "HURRY to prepare three seahs of fine flour, knead it, and prepare round breads. Avraham RAN to the herd, chose a tender and fine calf and gave it to his servant, who HURRIED to prepare it. He then took cream and milk and the calf that he had prepared and set it all before them. He served them under the tree and they ate…
AVRAHAM'S HOUSEHOLD AND COMMUNITY – INCULCATING KINDNESS
The thrust of this opening passage, then, is to highlight Avraham's noble character, to indicate that God's choice of him as the progenitor of His nation is well-founded, to impress upon the reader the great importance of kindness and compassion. Significantly, the Torah points out that Avraham does not act alone in his mission of benevolence, for both Sarah as well as the unnamed servant assist in the preparation of the meal. In other words, it is not only Avraham's personal disposition that is the subject of the episode, but the character of the HOUSEHOLD that he leads. Perhaps we may even go one step further. Avraham and Sarah, after all, are part of a larger community, that of Elonei Mamre. The Torah locates the strangers' visit at Elonei Mamre, where Avraham and Sarah had first taken up residence after Lot had parted company with them in the aftermath of the "shepherds' quarrel":
Lot chose to dwell in the plain of Yarden and journeyed from the east. Thus did the kinsmen part ways. Avram dwelt in the land of Canaan while Lot dwelt in the towns of the plain and pitched his tent on the outskirts of Sodom. The people of Sodom were very evil and iniquitous before God. After Lot had left him, God said to Avram: lift up your eyes from where you are and look to the north, south, east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and to your descendents…Avraham came to ELONEI MAMRE that is near Chevron and there pitched his tent. There he built an altar to God (13:14-18).
The so-called "Plains (elonei) Mamre" are no doubt associated with a certain Mamre, whom Avraham later refers to as one of his allies. After Lot is taken hostage by the four eastern kings (see our discussion last week), a messenger from the battle comes to inform Avram who was "dwelling in Elonei Mamre the Emorite, the brother of Eshkol and Aneir, and they were Avram's allies…" (Bereishit 14:13). After successfully routing the kings, Avram refuses the king of Sodom's offer of booty, but does assign some of the spoils to "the cohort of people who accompanied me – Aneir, Eshkol and Mamre may take their share…" (14:24). The textual evidence, therefore, points to Mamre as being Avraham's ally and friend.
WHO IS MAMREI?
Remarkably, Rabbinic tradition maintains that Mamre was not only a political partner of the patriarch, but an ardent supporter of Avraham's spiritual mission as well:
…At the time that the Holy One Blessed be He told Avraham to become circumcised, he took counsel from his three friends. Aneir told him: "You are already one hundred years old! Will you then pain yourself with this?" Eshkol told him: "Why must you mark yourself as different? You are among your enemies!" But Mamre told him: The very same God Who stood by your side at the fiery furnace, during the famine, and in battle against the kings, now asks you to become circumcised. Will you not listen to His words?" The Holy One Blessed be He said: "You, Mamre, counseled him to become circumcised. By your life, I will not appear to him at the palace of Aneir nor at the residence of Eshkol, but rather at your manor, as the verse states (18:1): "God appeared to Avraham in Elonei Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day…" (Bereishit Rabbah 42:8).
In other words, the incident of the travelers, who pass by Avraham's tent and are warmly welcomed by him, takes place within the community of Elonei Mamre, where acts of kindness and concern for wayfarers are regarded as precious deeds. Avraham sees the travelers and warmly receives them, Sarah and the servant are instrumental in preparing the overflowing table, the village of Mamre of which they are a part is proud of their magnanimity, and God graces the episode with His presence. So concludes what may be termed "Part One" of the Parasha, the story of communal, familial, and personal KINDNESS.
AVRAHAM'S DISPUTATION – THE CONCERN FOR JUSTICE
Of course, it soon becomes clear that these are not simply three typical travelers, but rather Divine messengers in the guise of men. Suddenly they announce Sarah's imminent conception, and ominously they peer out across the highlands towards the low-lying town of Sodom. Though Sarah receives their news of offspring incredulously, how she aches to believe that it is true! The travelers soon set out for Sodom, and in his pounding heart Avraham now realizes with trepidation that they are in fact Divine messengers that have been sent to destroy it. Standing alone before God, Avraham initiates a startling dialogue, in which he argues with the Deity on behalf of Sodom. The town and its environs may indeed be wicked, but shall there not be found a small band of righteous people within it?!
Avraham approached and said: "Shall You then angrily destroy the righteous along with the wicked? Perhaps there are fifty righteous people in the town. Shall you angrily destroy, rather then forgive the place on behalf of the fifty righteous people who are in its midst? That would be sacrilege for You to do so, killing the righteous along with the wicked, so that the fate of the righteous is like that of the wicked. It is sacrilege! Shall the Judge of all the earth not Himself do justice?!" (18:23-25).
In this passage, another facet of Avraham's character is revealed. Standing before God, boldly struggling with Him, Avraham appeals to the one thing that is as dear to him as life itself: JUSTICE. Though his nephew Lot dwells in Sodom, Avraham does not ask God for special favors, and mentions him not a once in the course of his lengthy discussion. In other words, it is not personal interests that trigger his outcry, but only the existential dread of a man who has labored his whole life to teach others of the Absolute God's righteousness and mercy. Wholly serene in the face of such a brazen challenge, God secretly smiles: "here is the individual that I have chosen to found My nation, and what a superb choice he is!." Or, to quote from the Torah itself:
God had said: "Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am about to do? Avraham will be a great and powerful nation, and all of the earth's peoples will be blessed on his account. I surely know that he will command his children and household after him to observe the way of God, to do acts of COMPASSION AND JUSTICE. Thus will God bring about all that He has spoken concerning Avraham…"(18:17-19).
Thus concludes "Part Two" of the Parasha, the story of Avraham the champion of justice, who cannot bear the thought of innocent people being destroyed, who will not be reconciled to a Deity that could look on with indifference as righteous people perish, who endeavors without respite to inculcate his children and his household to defend goodness and truth.
THE ARRIVAL IN SODOM – HOSPITALITY WRIT SMALL
Chapter 19 now opens, but there is no division in the original Hebrew text to indicate a break in the narrative. The travelers arrive in Sodom at evening time and position themselves in the town square. In a perfect parallel to the opening of the Parasha, Lot sees them from his perch at the gates and rises to greet them, now bowing respectfully before them. Though any mention of HASTE is pointedly lacking from the description, he is nonetheless gracious, pressing them to accompany him home and to stay the night. Arriving at his household, he prepares a feast, baking matzot in their honor.
While superficially, the episode seems to be a duplication of Avraham's hospitality – for he too had prepared bread, and plied his guests with a feast – something about the account is nevertheless unsettling. Though we know that Lot has a wife (19:15), unmarried daughters (19:8), and even sons-in-law (19:14), though it is already evening and the setting sun has cast sinister shadows across the square, no one else seems to be home! How else to explain the fact that Lot prepares the feast and bakes the matzot BY HIMSELF? A careful reading of the verses in question reveals that "HE prepared a banquet for them (VaYaas), and HE baked matzot (Aphah) for them to eat"(19:3).
There is, of course, another possibility. In contrast to Avraham who has succeeded in nurturing a household of kindness and compassion, Lot's benevolence solicits not a shred of familial support! He is alone in Sodom, his own wife and daughters unmoved (and more likely incensed) by his rash act of sympathy. To quote the colorful language of the Midrash that sees in the baking of the unleavened bread ("matzot") a source of great household strife ("matzoot"),
Rabbi Yitzchak said: How harsh was the struggle over the salt! For Lot had asked his wife to give the strangers a little salt, and she responded to him: "will you then introduce in our town this ugly custom of guests?!" (Bereishit Rabbah 50:4).
SODOM AND COMMUNITY SPIRIT
No doubt his guests eat their meal in unnerving silence, as Lot valiantly tries to make conversation, now pointing out the town's pleasant features, but all to no avail. Scarcely have the weary travelers began to settle down for the night, when an ominous knock is heard at the door:
Before they had gone to sleep, the people of the town, the people of Sodom, surrounded the house, young and old, the entire populace as one. The called out to Lot saying: "Where are the men who arrived by you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we may molest them!" (19:4-5).
In the mind of the travelers, the town of Mamre, though just over the horizon on the crest of the hill, must now have seemed light years away. Avraham's caring community, populated by friends and supporters who not only countenanced his kindness but also wholeheartedly approved it, stands in blinding contrast to the vile town of Sodom. How emphatically the text indicates, by the use of four separate expressions, that no one in Sodom was absent that night from the spectacle of murderous immorality that was about to unfold: "the people of the town (1), the people of Sodom (2), surrounded the house, young and old (3), the entire populace as one (4)." Like the lynching of the Israeli reservists at Ramallah, Sodom holds its breath, as the ringleaders approach the bolted door and attempt to tear it from its hinges!
SODOM AS CHAMPIONS OF INJUSTICE
But there is another aspect to the story, for this is not only the antithesis to the account of compassion and kindness that Avraham, his household and his community practiced scarcely eight or ten hours earlier. Lot heroically attempts to dissuade the mob, even offering his own daughters as ransom! But the people of Sodom will have none of it:
They said to him: "out of the way"! They continued: "shall the one who came as a sojourner now act as JUDGE? Now we shall hurt you more than them!" They urged the man Lot exceedingly and approached to break down the door…(19:9-10).
Recall that Lot had first met the guests as they crossed the town square, for there he sat "at the gate." Though to modern ears, this expression is almost meaningless, in the Ancient Near east, the town gate was the locale where commerce and politics were discussed, and where JUSTICE was meted out. As the Sages put it: "when the text says that 'Lot sat at the gate" it indicates that on that very day, the people of Sodom had appointed him to be Chief justice" (Bereishit Rabbah 50;3).
Thus we now have the perfect and ironic parallel to the story of "Avraham's Concern for Justice" discussed above. Avraham had valiantly argued on Sodom's behalf, calling upon God to preserve the wicked, if only because to destroy them would constitute an injustice towards the innocents incinerated along with them. Here, Lot the paragon of Sodomite Justice, must beg his evil townspeople for the preservation of the innocent souls that inadvertently stumbled into their midst and now stand in danger of being unjustly killed. God accedes to Avraham, the people of Sodom refuse Lot's entreaties, and thus their fate is sealed for immolation.
What follows is the miraculous story of Lot's escape and the destruction of Sodom, here broken up by the smirking laughter of his incredulous sons-in-law who cannot entertain the thought of Sodom's demise and refuse to accept the warning that could have saved their wretched lives (19:14). How like Sarah's laugh at the Parasha's outset (18:12), but how unlike it! There she had laughed silently but longed to believe in God's tidings, while here they sneer noisily and dismiss Lot's words with derision!
Finally, in an unnerving parallel, the Torah describes the account of Lot's daughters conceiving and giving birth (19:3-38), much as it had began with the hope and promise of Sarah finally bearing children (18:10). Having escaped to the hills from Sodom's conflagration, he enters a cave with his daughters and comes to believe that with the demise of his own personal world, the whole world has been destroyed as well. But what a twisted caricature soon unfolds as Lot is finally graced with grandchildren. These progeny are not the product of longing and heartfelt prayers, the hallmarks of his aged uncle and aunt's quest for offspring, but are rather the incestuous outcome of nights of drunken debauchery! And with the fall of that grotesque curtain, Lot vanishes from the Parasha and is forgotten.
The above parallels are too numerous to dismiss as coincidence, too striking to set aside as serendipity. The Torah intentionally asks us to compare and contrast the lives of Avraham, Sarah and their community with those of Lot, his shrew of a wife, and the churning cauldron known as Sodom. But to what end? In the Torah's worldview, the autonomy of the individual is paramount. A person is completely free to decide upon the moral direction of his or her life but is called upon to choose the good. As individuals, we alone are responsible for the moral decisions that we make and we alone bear the consequences of those choices or enjoy the rewards.
How pathetic is the man called Lot, who sincerely wanted to emulate his righteous uncle but failed, not because of a lack of will but rather because of the broader choices that he had made – whom to marry, and where to live. In the end, his world came crashing down, his family a devastation, his city a smoldering ruin, he alone emerging to end his life in infamy! How differently things may have worked out had Lot stood by Avraham's side and remained with him among Chevron's hills.
No person lives life in utter isolation, and most of us experience its ebbs and flows in the context of a family. It therefore becomes our responsibility to not only strive for the good on a personal level, but to raise our families to do likewise. But that apparently, is not enough. There is a communal dimension as well, the larger context against which the personal or familial events are played out, and where and among whom we live often carries the day. As descendents of Avraham and Sarah, the Torah invites us to be champions of compassion and justice, the twin pillars of "Tzedaka" and "Mishpat," upon which the mighty edifice of Jewish tradition rests. Though we must apply these principles first and foremost in our personal lives, we must not overlook their centrality to our familial lives, nor fail to apply them in our communities as well. The Parasha then, sounds a cautionary note for us all.