Genesis 18: 2-5
Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, He said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on — seeing that you have come your servant’s way.”
As we boarded our 11:00 PM flight from Milan to Dakar we realized that something was off. Our original tickets said that we were landing close to 5:00 AM, but now it seemed like we were landing at 3:30. Not only was our flight was going to be faster than planned, but apparently Senegal doesn’t use daylight savings time. Who knew? Not us.
I panicked. We had already confirmed with our cab to pick us up at 5:00 AM, and with our landlord that we were coming at 5:30. Could we possibly get them to meet us an hour and a half earlier in the middle of the night?
When we landed we were pleasantly surprised. The Dakar airport had undergone a massive renovation and was no longer the derelict third-world airport that we remembered from two years ago. It now was even more efficient and cleaner than JFK (which I guess isn’t saying much) and has free WIFI!
We called our cab driver. He was already waiting for us outside, and our landlord was also awake anticipating our early arrival.
“Oh yeah, this is what traveling feels like” I reminded myself. It is exhilarating, exhausting, at times anxiety producing and a lot of fun.
Those feelings largely sum up the past few days for us. It has been amazing to be here, to take in the vibrant sounds and sights of Dakar. The streets are always bustling. The call to prayer from the minarets that line the city can be heard at all times of the day. The buses are painted with dazzling colors and are overcrowded with people hanging out the doors and on the roofs. Our oldest son has taken to calling them clown cars.
It has also been hard. When we were living in Princeton my parents were always a short drive away, always willing to help out with anything. Likewise, this was true when we were living down the block from my in-laws in Jerusalem this summer. Here in Dakar we are totally reliant upon ourselves and upon the goodwill of strangers. And there have been a lot of really amazing strangers.
One of the most powerful effects of travelling is that you become reliant on all types of people that you would not usually think to rely upon. Cab drivers who have helped us find locations without any street names, fishermen who gave us fresh fish for Shabbat, and fruit vendors who entertained our children while we bought fresh produce, have all gone out of their way to help us out this week. We are totally out of our normal routine and appreciate these simple acts of kindness so much more than we normally would.
When we arrived in our apartment an hour and a half early on Tuesday morning, our landlord showed us that she had filled the fridge with cold bottled water and seltzer. This is significant, because Westerners cannot drink the tap water here. We were really grateful to have something cold to drink and to not have to worry about finding water in the middle of the night. Additionally, the doorman at the building took all ten pieces of luggage (everything we will have for the year!) up the stairs for us.
The following day we explored our new neighborhood. While there are many paved streets where we lived, there are an equal number of streets that are covered in sand. By the time we returned home we were pretty dirty. My son and I went to wash our feet in the bath and I was reminded of what Abraham tells his guests who just arrived in the middle of the dessert heat, “Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.” These words, which I have read so many times took on a new meaning to me.
Abraham, who himself was a lonely traveler, understood very well how challenging travelling alone can be. From his personal experience he knew exactly what a tired traveler needs; A little cold water to drink and the opportunity to wash up just a little bit. He also understood how much more a wandering traveler appreciates these simple acts of kindness.
The rabbis taught that Abraham was in the middle of talking with God when three strangers appeared in the distance. He left God to go and great the strangers. Based on this the rabbis taught that welcoming strangers in to our homes is even more important than greeting God! This statement has always puzzled and amazed me, but this week I had a new understanding of what the rabbis of the Talmud meant.
When a person is on a journey, they are able to see the grace of God in even the smallest acts of kindness. Seemingly insignificant things, providing a little water or washing your feet, suddenly become of great import. It is not that Abraham left God in order to welcome these strangers. Rather, Abraham realized that by being hospitable, he could bring God with him in to the lives of these sojourners.