Vayera: Be our guest, be our guest

(c) Disney

My mother taught me how to throw a party.  From her, I learned how to time the coffee, get my serving pieces out in advance, and set the table with the “pretties”, as she used to call them:  her tablecloths, china, crystal platters, and more.  And don’t do the dishes while guests are still there.   I don’t entertain that way too often, but I still strive for, and mostly achieve, the feeling she managed to create:  a really good time.  Laughter, good food (whether I cook it or not), informality (even if the china is laid out) and making sure that everyone knows how glad we are that they’re there.

Other than my mother, there is no one more known for hospitality than Abraham (ok, maybe Lumiere from “Beauty and the Beast” – he got a whole song built around the idea).   Back to Abraham.  In the parasha Vayera, Abraham sees three men approach, while sitting in his tent.  Much to-do ensues…so many verbs!  Running, greeting, bowing, bathing, fetching, preparing.  I’m exhausted just reading it!  But Abraham and Sarah put together a fabulous meal for their guests and are rewarded with a prophecy about a son to be born to Sarah the following year.

In Abraham’s hospitality story, we see three components:  welcoming the guests at the beginning, the prophecy about progeny at the end, and some bargaining with God in the middle, specifically over God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah.

We get those same components in the hospitality story of Lot, Abraham’s nephew –the open door for guests, the progeny story, and bargaining with God’s messengers.  But this time they come in a different order and result in a completely different outcome.    Lot sees two men at the gate of Sodom, whom we readers know to be among the same men who visited Abram.  Lot invites them to stay, nay, begs them.   But there is a lot less guest-care described.   They do get offered a bath and a bed.  Why is Lot so intent on hosting them?  Perhaps the men seemed well-off or important, so Lot is keen on having them stay at his house.  It will impress his neighbors, increase his community standing.   In contrast,  Abram doesn’t assess the status of his visitors; he just welcomes them.

When the townspeople get wind of Lot’s overnight guests, they try to drag them out into the crowd that appears outside Lot’s door.  Lot goes out to bargain with the mob, by offering them his virgin daughters instead of his guests.  Nice parenting moment.  Lot’s neighbors aren’t buying it, so they try to break down the door.  Lot is pulled safely inside by his own guests, at which point the messengers tell Lot to take his family and get out of town. Now.

Lot keeps stalling.  First he can’t convince his sons-in-law, and then still doesn’t make a move to get his remaining young daughters and wife to safety.  The messengers themselves actually grab them and bring them outside where they wait for Lot to join them.  Finally, when he’s headed out of town, he tries to bargain with the messengers for a nicer place to live after the destruction of his home.

The welcome, and the bargaining.  But what about the progeny story?

Well, that’s another stellar family moment.  Lot’s wife has been turned into a pillar of salt, we don’t know what happened to his married daughters, but his remaining daughters and their dad end up in a cave somewhere.  There is an encounter between a blind-drunk Lot and these two daughters who are convinced the world has come to an end, and there are no men left. So, to “maintain life”, the daughters each sleep with their father, get pregnant, and became the progenitors of the tribes of Moab and Ammon.  This begins what becomes the Israelites’ very troubled relationship with these two tribes.  No wonder.  The progeny story, gone bad.

Abraham and Lot both welcome visitors, but Lot’s visitors wreak havoc, responding perhaps to Lot’s motives.  Abraham and Lot both bargain with God/ messengers, but Abraham bargains for innocent lives, and Lot bargains for his own well-being.  Finally, both stories end with a fulfilled prophecy about the coming generations; Abraham’s strengthens the future, and Lot’s literally ill-conceived grandchildren begin a cycle of violence.

How do we welcome others into our homes?  With self-interest and ulterior motives?  Or, with happiness at their mere presence among us, ready to learn and share from each other?

Think about that next time you invite guests over!  Cue the song.

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