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Naomi Graetz

Hope and Hospitality in Parshat Va-Yera

This week I am without words בלי מילים—beli milim.  That is an expression we hear over and over as more and more people—including Knesset members —are exposed to the graphic pictures of the horrors of October 7th. The enormity of it is too much!  And yet, our leaders, who are too often people of words, but no deeds to support them, are exhorting us to have hope, amidst our mourning. This is something which is difficult to do, even if it is necessary. Yet perhaps it is second nature to us as a people who have lived in exile for thousands of years with the beacon of Zion in our prayers. It is so easy to stay in mourning (like Jacob who refused to be comforted) and sink in the “slough of despond” the swamp of despair, the deep bog of John Bunyan’s allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress (shades of a paper I wrote for a medieval English Lit class in 1966).

This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.[1]

Despair is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. There is a delicate balance between fear and despair. We have a right to be fearful, given the fraught nature of the time we live in. But despair is something else. The theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel understood how seductive despair is. As a person rescued from the Shoah, he understood how important it was to believe in the power of goodness, and that it would prevail. Though we should never forget our tragedies, we must also have happy moments. During this war many weddings have taken place, some with the groom in his army uniform. At weddings, we remember the destruction of Jerusalem, but celebrate the cementing of relationships in marriage. What can be more hopeful than the words we sing under the chuppah of the wedding, during the sheva berachot, the seven blessings, which are full of hope: sasson v’simcha, gila rina, ditza v’chedva, ahava v’achva, v’shalom v’re’ut–joy and gladness, mirth, glad song, pleasure, delight, love, togetherness, peace, and  friendship.

THE POWER OF HOPE

My granddaughter told me the other day, “Grandma, if we don’t have hope, there is no point to all that we are doing, all that we are fighting for.” And this same granddaughter sent out a video describing all that she and her pre-Army program are doing to care and comfort the people in the North. When I spoke to two groups this week, I showed this video. That is what gives me hope, to know that there are people who are capable of optimism amidst the horror. Also to know how many people outside of Israel are with us during this very difficult time. This is what puts words in my virtual pen. So with hope in mind, I decided to look as usual at this weeks’ parsha which I know so well (and even parts of which I know by heart) for guidance and inspiration.  Normally, I would focus on the sacrifice of Isaac and the banishment of Ishmael and the enmity between Sarah and Hagar. I would even consider it timely to discuss Abraham’s sticking up to God and begging him not to destroy Sodom, but in the end acquiescing to the realization that total evil has to be wiped out, something which is totally relevant today. However, I decided to focus on something more positive and that is Abraham’s hospitality to the “strangers “who visit him at the very beginning of parshat va-yera.

ABRAHAM: A SYMBOL OF HOPE AND HOSPITALITY

Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent on a very hot day. Looking up, he sees three figures standing near him. When he sees them, he runs from the entrance of the tent to greet them, bowing to the ground. He insists that they stop and visit with him:

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.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”

So Abraham runs quickly into the tent to Sarah, and orders her to make cakes from the best flour she has in her larder: “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then full of energy, he runs out to the fields where his sheep and cattle are and picks out a tender choice calf, and gives it to one of his lads, who butchers it and prepares it for cooking. Once this is done, Abraham serves the calf together with milk and curds and waits on them until they are finished eating.

Abraham’s hospitality is full-hearted. He sees these three “people” in the desert and in true Mediterranean fashion offers them first water, then washes their feet and finally offers them “a morsel of bread” –an understatement for what is actually a full-fledged feast. He makes sure that the food they eat is nothing but the best and like a good host, is present while they eat, so if they need something he can easily get it for them. He puts himself out for these strangers and expects nothing in return. Fortunately, Abraham has his loyal kitchen staff, his behind the scenes wife and a servant boy (and perhaps even more who are not mentioned) to follow his orders and presumably to clean up the mess after they leave.

These last three weeks, the unnamed helpers, the behind the scene workers–many of whom are women of all ages– have come to the forefront of our news. In contrast to the lack of action on the part of the government to care for its desperate citizens who are now referred to as mefunei otef azza (the evacuees from the communities surrounding the Gaza strip), the people of Israel , have ALL opened their hearts, homes and pocketbooks to provide immediate and ongoing care to these traumatized citizens. Watching this in action is amazing. There are videos circulating of acts of kindness and altruism; with no one expecting anything in return, except maybe an exhausted voiced or unvoiced thank you. These acts of loving kindness are extended to both the evacuees and the soldiers who have been called up.

A NEW GENERATION OF SARAHS AND REBECCAS

In our town of Omer alone, a cohort of young activist women found about 12 vacant homes, and got the owners’ permission to house families who had literally nothing but the shirts on their backs. There is a WhatsApp list, and everyday there are hundreds of people volunteering to give whatever is necessary. So these traumatized, shell-shocked families come into a home, which is now stocked with beds, linen, tables, cribs, high chairs, televisions, couches, toaster ovens, dishes, silverware, stoves, washing machines, refrigerators—all of which are donated. A list of food is circulated and as fast as it appears, someone volunteers to bring the basics in person, or write a check to pay for it. Plumbers, electricians, technicians and others donate their services for free. High school crews go to these abandoned homes and clean them , remove rubble from the gardens. To make these houses feel like home, people hang up pictures, bring rugs, age appropriate toys and books for the children. The list is endless. And all of this is donated, and not for the purpose of tax deductions; donated out of the goodness of their hearts. It is altruism at work, our finest hour, because these people are us—could be us. They are family; they were on the frontlines, overlooked and deserted by the government. The feeling is the opposite of helplessness and despair; it is the feeling that we CAN do something NOW. It won’t make up for the cruelty of the world they left; the losses are too great, but at least they can sense that there are kind people, loving people, who perform acts of loving kindness as second nature—in contrast to the acts of barbarism they have witnessed and suffered.

The women in our community (the Sarahs and Rebeccas of today) who are spearheading this are all professionals in their forties, early fifties, with children, some of whose husbands are in the army. They too were in the army when they were younger. But instead of wringing their hands, they are acting, they are contributing their skills of organization, they are an army of helpers. They draft others to help them. They send lists out of what they need. They constantly thank the people who are helping. They make time to check in on the senior population in Omer—to make sure that WE are okay. I stand by and am amazed by their energy. The former head of the Psychiatric Unit at Soroka hospital donates her services. And I can go on and on. And I know that our village is just a small version of something much larger, a microcosm of the whole country, and that gives me hope.  They may not know it, but they are following in the tradition of Abraham and later in the tradition of Rebecca who saw a traveler with camels and took it upon herself to not only water the camels, but invited the stranger to her home. Kindness to the stranger, the widow, the orphan is our heritage and it is heartwarming to see it taking place in our country. Hopefully, our heritage of hope will serve as inspiration and a reminder to people like myself who tend to be pessimistic and prone to despair. There is another way—and this is part of it. We have a choice:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—if you and your offspring would live—by loving your God יהוה, heeding God’s commands, and holding fast to [God]. For thereby you shall have life and shall long endure upon the soil that יהוה swore to your fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to them (Deuteronomy 30: 19-20).

In the words of the Torah, we are standing today with a choice between life and death:  we must choose life with its blessings, and live a life worth living.

  1. The source of this is from Wikipedia: John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress, edited with an introduction by Roger Sharrock, (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), 46; James Thomas paraphrases it: “It is the low ground where the scum and filth of a guilty conscience, caused by conviction of sin, continually gather, and for this reason it is called the Slough of Despond.”, Pilgrim’s Progress in Today’s English, James H. Thomas, ed., (1964), 18.
About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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