This week’s Sedra starts with our forefather Abraham, having just performed circumcision on himself at the ripe old age of 99, sitting in the burning heat of the day. This was no ordinary heat – we are told that G-d made a hole in hell, bringing the whole world to boiling point. Abraham was not a well man. Yet he was still waiting by his tent, as consistent as always, touting for passing trade to teach them the whys and wherefores of G-d.
You would excuse a man in Abraham’s position for being a bit sad. Depressed, even. And yes, he was feeling a bit down. But it was not in the least to do with his personal or physical pain. His anguish was purely brought on by the lack of the common passer-by. Moreover, he was always this sad whenever he didn’t have guests, but right now doubly so. He feared that guests would never come his way again due to the new prerequisite for conversion – circumcision. Abraham, the ‘ish chesed’, could not function properly unless he had either fulfilled the mitzvah of hospitality or of bringing idolaters under G-d’s wing. Now that’s what I call a forefather.
How far we are from Abraham’s concept of hospitality!
But his sadness was short-lived, for Hashem sent three ‘wayfarers’ his way for Abraham to look after. We know that these men were angels. However, at the time, Abraham did not. At the time Abraham was talking to G-d, and when he saw the three strangers, he actually told G-d to wait while he ran to bring the guests into his home! From this, we can really see the importance of hospitality – we see that it is more important than greeting the Divine Presence. He rushed after these strangers hand and foot. If he did this for simple travelling bedouins, imagine if he knew their real identity! Yet we see that this is exactly why they appeared as wayfarers – to give Abraham the chance to perform kindness and teach Torah.
The verse tells us that “Abraham stood over them, beneath the tree”. However, just four verses earlier we were informed that they were beneath the tree. It is mentioned again because here, ‘tree’ is a metaphor for Torah. After Abraham placed the food on the table, he began to discuss Torah concepts with them. From here, also, we learn that it is good (if not mandatory) to learn Torah at the table.
These angels soon revealed their identities, and asked Abraham “Where is Sarah your wife?”, and he replied “in the tent.” Why the question? Surely they knew where she was. I mean, it’s not as if there were many places to hide in the desert. They asked the question to bring to Abraham’s consciousness the fact that Sarah had stayed modestly in her tent, and thereby to endear her to her husband. The angel Michael (one of the strangers) said that as a reward for this, Sarah will be worthy of descendants who will serve as High Priests in the Sanctuary! Such is the reward of the modest woman, the mother of all Jewesses.
After informing Abraham and Sarah that they will bear a son, the angels go on their way. Michael left his two companions and returned to Heaven, while Raphael and Gavriel continued on their journey, travelling towards Sodom. Gavriel had been instructed to destroy Sodom and its neighbouring towns, while it was Raphael’s task to save Lot from the ruins.
Why was Sodom to be destroyed? Well, here are a few examples of their constitution:
1. Any stranger found in the vicinity may be robbed of his money and maltreated.
2. It is the duty of a Sodomite judge to ensure that every wayfarer leaves the country penniless.
3. Anyone found handing food to a pauper or stranger will be put to death.
4. Anyone who invites strangers to a wedding will be punished by having all his clothes removed from him.
It’s fairly easy to see why they were worthy of punishment. It’s even easier to see after you read this:
Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, once happened to pass through Sodom. When walking in the street, he was attacked and beaten by Sodomites until he bled. Eliezer went directly to the judge to demand justice.
“What happened?” asked the judge.
“This man inflicted a wound on me!” complained Eliezer.
“This is a clear cut case. Eliezer, pay this man immediately for having ‘let’ your blood!” decided the cruel judge.
Eliezer did not hesitate. He took a stick and beat up the judge until he bled. Then he said to the judge, “Now you owe me money for having let your blood. Instead of paying it to me, you can cut out the middleman and give it straight to the other fellow!”
Sodom’s final crime was when they sentenced Lot’s daughter to death for feeding a beggar. She was strung up naked and smeared with honey until the bees stung her to death. Her cries reached the Heavenly Throne. G-d and the Beth Din (Heavenly Tribunal) descended to judge the city, dooming it to destruction.
We all know that when Abraham heard about the intended destruction of Sodom, he prayed to G-d to save it. Why? The tzaddikim (righteous ones) pray not only on behalf of the world and Israel, but even for the wicked. They hope the wicked will mend their ways and return to Hashem. However, there were not even ten righteous people in the whole area. Lot was rescued, and the cities were rained upon with fire and brimstone until even the vegetation was completely destroyed. The earth and air were so polluted that until this day, nothing grows there.
Abraham then moved to Gerar. Why? Because after the destruction of Sodom there were no more passers-by for him. This shows us that Abraham’s original guests must have been Sodomites! What incredible goodness to offer hospitality to people who were themselves the bane of guests. And what a great lesson the Sodomites must have learnt in his house. He pitched his tent so as to honour the people near the place where they starved and mistreated others. And where was his new home, Gerar? Between Kadesh and Shur – two great cities. In this way he had a greater ‘catchment area’.
As soon as Abraham enters Gerar, he encounters Avimelech, the king, and is forced to say that Sarah is his sister. This is because the first thing that Abraham was asked when he arrived was if Sarah was his wife. From this we derive that not only did they have designs on her, but also that they had no local custom of hospitality for strangers. But this was not the reason why Abraham had to lie; it was really because there was no fear of G-d in the place. When this is lacking, anything goes. Thus Abraham feared for his wife, and himself.
Sarah gives birth to Isaac, and next we have the incident of Ishmael, Abraham’s son from Hagar. Sarah sees that Ishmael is evil, and asks Abraham to drive him out, along with Hagar. Abraham was most distressed about this – not because he would not have someone to inherit his wealth, but because he would not have someone to carry on his spiritual mission in the world. Sarah knows instinctively that Ishmael is not the man for the job; Abraham objects. We are told that of all the misfortunes that Abraham had ever known, this distressed him the most. G-d intercedes and tells him to listen to his wife. From here we see how much a wife’s intuition, or bina yetera, must be valued. A woman naturally has extra intelligence when it comes to determining someone else’s character traits.
I am instantly reminded when my wife Shelley and I were looking for a caterer for our wedding. We saw someone whom I felt was perfect for the job – he had a fantastic hall and offered us a great package. It seemed a clear-cut decision – we would pay the deposit and sign the contract. However, Shelley didn’t trust him. I felt that I had to go against my instincts, but I went along with her – without batting an eyelid. Eight months later, he went bankrupt and ran away owing many people money.
Bina yetera is no joke. Listen to your wife’s instincts. They won’t let you down.