“He said, ‘My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant.’” (Genesis 18:3)
The Torah uses two different words, vayomer and vayera, to describe God’s interactions with Abraham. Mostly, God speaks to Abraham (vayomer), but three times, God actually appears to Abraham (vayera). This happens twice in last week’s parasha (portion). Each time (Gen. 12:7 and Gen 17:1), God’s appearance provokes Abraham to engage in acts of ritual worship: building an altar and circumcising himself and his household.
Parashat Vayera opens with God’s third revelation to Abraham. Then, three strangers appear and Abraham invites them into his home. He showers them with hospitality, washing their feet, offering them choice foods, and serving them himself. These efforts are especially noteworthy because Abraham himself is still recovering from his own circumcision (according to some commentators). The strangers turn out to be angels, each charged with a specific purpose, the first of which is to prophesy the birth of Isaac.
If this episode is an act of revelation (remember, it opens with vayera) an act of ritual worship should follow. But there is no altar building or sacrificing, only Abraham’s hospitality. It turns out the Torah is making a statement of equivalency: welcoming strangers is an act of worship. In fact, the rabbis feel so strongly about this that they comment, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a).
The tradition of welcoming is part of JCCs’ DNA. A recent survey of JCC professional and lay leadership reveals that hachnasat orchim, extending hospitality to guests, is the most frequently nominated “core” value. That makes JCCs the modern incarnation of Abraham’s welcoming tent.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,