the stranger among us
In this week’s Torah reading we are introduced to two very different models of the treatment of strangers, one characterized by openness and hospitality, the other by fear and oppression. In many ways these two models – the society of Mamre and the society of Sodom, the homes respectively of Abraham and his cousin Lot – are still with us today.
One of the greatest tests of a society is how it treats outsiders, and this portion provides two very contrasting examples. Abraham, still recovering, the rabbis tell us, from his circumcision at the age of 99, is sitting at the entrance to his tent in the plains of Mamre in the heat of the day, when he sees three strangers approaching. He runs to meet them, begging them to stay. He and his wife Sarah prepare a lavish feast, and wait on the visitors hand and foot. Before they leave, one of the visitors, who turn out to be angels, tells Abraham that his wife Sarah will shortly have a baby boy who will fulfill the promise of continuity for the Jewish people.
The treatment of the same visitors at Lot’s house in Sodom could hardly be more different. The visit to Abraham takes place in the heat of the day; the visit to Lot takes place late at night. While Abraham keeps his door wide open, Lot is forced to close his door fast to protect his visitors from the other residents of Sodom. While Abraham is rewarded with a son for his hospitality, Lot offers to sacrifice his daughters (“who have not yet known a man”) in a desperate attempt to protect his guests from his inhospitable neighbours. And while Abraham’s wife Sarah laughs, and eventually suckles her own child, Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt, as the entire city of Sodom is destroyed in fire and brimstone.
Taken together, the two stories suggest a simple but radical proposition: societies that welcome outsiders and nurture them ensure their own continuity and flourish; while societies that reject and oppress outsiders sow the seeds of their own destruction.
The history of the Jewish people as strangers in other peoples’ lands is a striking proof of the truth of this proposition. Societies which have welcomed the Jews and other minorities, which have given them equal rights and the opportunity to develop their skills and to contribute to society, have historically flourished and thrived. Societies which have treated Jews and other minorities with suspicion and disdain, and which have deprived them of basic rights, have in so doing revealed a fundamental weakness at their very core, which has ultimately led to their decline.
The remarkable consistency with which this pattern has repeated itself throughout Jewish history, with its golden ages and periods of oppression, is a striking fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham about the future of his descendants: “I will bless those who bless you, and those who curse you, shall I curse” (Genesis XII.2).
After two thousand years of seeing one side of this phenomenon, as visitors in the lands of others, for the past six decades the modern State of Israel has given us the opportunity to experience the other side of the equation. No longer strangers in a strange land, but now masters of our own society, it has fallen to us to face the complex challenge of dealing with the stranger and the visitor in our own midst. And along with the other societies of the world that among whom we have lived over the centuries, we have been witness to the same indelible truth – the strangers that we welcome into our midst, and treat with hospitality and tolerance, prove to be one of our greatest sources of creativity, diversity and strength.
In others’ words
“Build your home in such a way that a stranger may feel happy in your midst.”
Theodore Herzl, Diary
On a lighter note
When he is visited by angels, Abraham makes them a lavish feast. After the eating is over, one of the angels stands up and says: “Your wife Sarah will have a baby”. Sarah, hiding in the tent, giggles at the possibility she will have a child at her advanced age. The angel’s few words are actually the first after-dinner speech in the Bible, and till today they can teach us the three essentials of after dinner speaking: First, the speech should be short. Second, it should be pregnant with meaning, and third, it should make someone laugh.
Heard from Rabbi Chaim Wilschanski