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Parashat Vayeira (Genesis 18.1-22.24) Radical Hospitality and the Sanctuary Movement

Those of us who have an opportunity to participate in giving sanctuary to refugees in crisis know how critical it is to provide a safe haven for a person at risk of deportation to certain physical danger.  As volunteers providing round the clock witness, we are sometimes daunted when months stretch into years while our guests await relief in the courts.  Yet we know that the difficulty of our task is not to be compared to the discomfort of being confined day after day in a small space, not knowing when/if release will come.  Our job is to make the environment as hospitable as we can.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayeira (Gen 18.1-22.24) teaches us about hospitality.  As the parsha opens, YHWH appears to Abraham as he sits by his tent in the midday heat.  When Abraham looks up, he sees three men, not immediately obvious as messengers of God.  Nevertheless, Abraham rushes to bring them water to wash their dusty feet, invites them to rest in the shade under the tree and brings them bread.  Abraham further prepares a tender young calf with curds and milk – a feast for the visitors.  The radical hospitality of Abraham is well known.  And what accompanies this hospitality is the pronouncement that Sarah will bear a child in her old age, an occasion for laughter and joy (and some trepidation).  This would be enough to teach the virtues of hospitality on its own.

However, our parsha goes on to additionally warn us of the drastic consequences of radical inhospitality.  In a master stroke of point and counter point, the narrative switches immediately from Abraham and Sarah and the message of new birth, to God sharing with Abraham that God will visit Sodom and Gomorrah to see if they are indeed as sinful as God has heard.  Implied is that God will sweep away the inhabitants of that land.  Abraham bargains with God to save Sodom from destruction if there are even ten righteous persons there.  Now certainly identified as malachim, (messengers/angels) of God, two men, presumably two of Abraham’s guests, go to Sodom.  Lot, nephew of Abraham, greets the malachim by falling on his face, with an offer of shelter and a place to wash their feet.  Lot, like Abraham, prepares a feast for his guests.

Lot is not a native of Sodom.  He is newly arrived, considered a ger, a resident alien, not permanent. Lot’s new neighbors do not hold to the same high standard of hospitality as do he and Abraham.  The men of the city, young and old, encircle Lot’s house and demand that he bring the visitors out so that they may know them.  While “knowing” here may have sexual overtones, and from this text for many centuries fanatics have claimed that the sin of Sodom is homosexuality, the sin is not homosexuality.   Whatever the neighbors want to do to the visitors has nothing to do with same sex love (or any love), and everything to do with force and violence.  Lot refuses to allow wickedness to be done to the men.  Unfortunately, Lot’s hospitality (and humanity) breaks down, as he offers up his virgin daughters to the neighbors.  Would there have been a better outcome if Lot had not offered up his daughters?  Perhaps the 10 righteous would have been found and the city saved.


Lot leaving Sodom, Woodcut from the Nuremberg Chronicle

In the event, YHWH rescues Lot and his daughters, turns Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt, and reigns brimstone and fire down on Sodom.  The conflagration is horrific.  The Genesis text is not specific about what the sin of Sodom is, but coming on the heels of Abraham’s welcome to strangers, we understand it may be in  refusing friendship to resident aliens (Lot and family), and threatening to swallow up strangers in violence.

The prophet Ezekiel gives us insight into the underpinnings/ background to the cruel way in which those of Sodom treat strangers.

This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: pride, surfeit of bread, and abundance of idleness was in her and in her daughters; and she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and needy. Ezekiel 16:49–50

Rabbi Steven Greenberg gives an overview of rabbinic commentary:

Among early rabbinic commentators, the common reading of the sin of Sodom was its cruelty, arrogance and disdain for the poor. The sages of the Babylonian Talmud also associated Sodom with the sins of pride, envy, cruelty to orphans, theft, murder, and perversion of justice. While the event which sealed the fate of the Sodomites was their demand for Lot to bring out his guests so that the mob might “know” them, this still was not seen so much as an act of sexual excess, but as hatred of the stranger and exploitation of the weak. Midrashic writers lavishly portray Sodom and the surrounding cities as arrogant and self-satisfied, destroyed for the sins of greed and indifference to the poor.

Not to take in the sojourners or travelers crossing the desert in those days could doom them to great suffering and even death.  This is the action of a community which indeed practices cruelty, perversion of justice, greed and indifference to the poor.  The flaming destruction of an entire people is terrifying in our eyes, yet the symbol remains as a warning of the dire consequences of radical inhospitality.

The news these days is full of cruel practices and perversion of justice.  We hope and pray that there is a just reward to the perpetrators.  Meanwhile, like Abraham and Sarah, we can hold our sanctuary guests in warm embrace, assuring them of clean water, abundant food, and safe shelter.  And we can work against the real sins of Sodom in our present society, by standing up for the rights of transgender people, immigrants, people of color, and other marginalized groups.

May the pleasure and laughter of Sarah be our reward.  “And Sarah laughed.”  Genesis 18:12

Sat, August 17 2019 16 Av 5779