Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz
Parashat Va-Yera opens with two seemingly unrelated narratives: first, 'three men' appear mysteriously to Abraham, bearing the news that his wife, Sarah, will soon conceive. Next we read of God's destruction of the cities of S'dom and Amora for their immorality and corruption.
The heavenly visitors serve as a link between the two narratives: it is they who deliver the good news to Sarah and they who warn Abraham's nephew, Lot, of the cities' impending destruction. A second connection, this one thematic and allusive, emerges from the contrast between the two stories.
Abraham is well-known for his hospitality: as the parasha opens, Abraham sits anxiously by the opening of his tent, looking to greet and provide hospitality to wayfarers. As Genesis 18:1 notes, Abraham "was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day." Abraham actively sought strangers to whom he could be hospitable. Not only does he seek these wayfarers out, once they arrive he encourages them 'to wash their feet', 'recline under the tree', 'fetches' them bread to 'refresh their hearts,' and serves 'tender and fine' delicacies. Everett Fox, a modern commentator on the Bible, writes, "Central . . . is the idea of hospitality, emphasized in the text by the threefold use of 'pray' [please] (verses 3-4), 'pass on by' (verses 3-5), and by Abraham's flurry of activity (he himself 'runs' twice, 'hastens' three times, and 'fetches' four times in serving his guests" (Fox, The Five Books of Moses, 74). Indeed, based on Abraham's model, the Talmud declares, "hospitality to travelers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence" (Tractate Shabbat 127a).
Moreover, Abraham's model of hospitality reinforces the rabbinic reading of the great sin of S'dom and Amora. As we are presented with God's case for the overturning of S'dom and Amora, God declares, "The outcry in S'dom and Amora - how great it is! And their sin - how exceedingly heavily it weighs!" What is the unspeakable sin of S'dom and Amora? How is it connected to the 'hospitality' narrative at the beginning of our parasha?
Picking up on the words 'outcry' (Gen. 18:20) and 'cry' (Gen. 18:21), the rabbis read intratextually, that is to say, they explored other appearances of these words throughout the Bible to determine their meaning in the present context of S'dom andAmora. Numerous examples of the Hebrew tse'aqah, outcry/ cry, abound: in Genesis 27:34, Esau bursts into a wild and bitter 'cry' after his father, Isaac, 'mistakenly' bestows the blessing of the first born on his younger brother Jacob. Exodus 3:7 echoes God's empathic declaration, "[I] have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters . . . I have come down to rescue them because of their taskmasters." And the prophet Isaiah proclaims, God "hoped for justice, but behold, injustice; for equity (tsedaqah), but behold, iniquity (tse'aqah)" (Isaiah 5:7). Thus, each instance of tse'aqah, outcry, speaks to a categorical sense of injustice - a perversion of that which is proper and just. The victims are deprived of the bounty that is rightfully theirs. Esau is wrongfully deprived of his blessing; the Israelites are brutally oppressed by their Egyptian taskmasters; and Isaiah's contemporaries are exploited physically and morally by one another.
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These words of Torah were taken from The JTS Torah Commentary archive:
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