Commentary for Vayeira

3 Nov

In this week’s parshah we follow a group of angels as they experience both ends of the spectrum of the treatment of guests, encountering both the extremes of human kindness and the extremes of human cruelty.

First they go to visit Abraham. Abraham, still recovering from having recently circumcised himself at the age of ninety-nine, sees three strangers wandering through the area, and he rushes out of his tent into the hot sun to encourage these total strangers to come into his tent for a some food and drink. This is the first recorded act of kindness in the Torah, and from this story emerges the important Jewish value of hachnasat orchim (“welcoming guests”).

Two of the three angels then move on to Sodom to visit Abraham’s nephew Lot and his family to warn them to leave the city before God destroys it. Lot is sitting at the city gate when they arrive and invites them to stay at his house that night. The angels tell him they will be fine sleeping out in the town square, but Lot vehemently insists that they sleep in his home instead. The reason for Lot’s strong insistence that they not sleep in the town square is that the Sodomite custom for the treatment of guests was to rob them, rape them, and according to some midrashim, also maim them. Indeed, when the locals realize that Lot has saved these two men from this fate, they form an angry mob at his door, demanding that he turn these outsiders over to them to suffer this terrible fate. When Lot refuses to give up his guests, the Sodomites begin to threaten him as well. God intercedes to disperse the mob, the angels lead Lot and his family out of the city, and then God destroys Sodom and all of its inhabitants.

While Abraham valued his guests as people, the Sodomites saw theirs as commodities. When the Sodomites look at visitors they did not see human beings with rights and feelings; they only saw how they could benefit from these strangers’ temporary presence. The Sodomites, like the people of Noah’s generation before them, were destroyed for this crime of not respecting their fellow human beings as people. Theirs is an example we should take heed of, as the valuing of people for the things they provide us with without any consideration of their own feelings and needs, is by no means a sin we are free of today.

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