At the beginning of Parshat Vayera, God visits Avraham who is recovering from his Brit Mila. The story continues with three angels, in the guise of men, meeting Avraham. Then a dialogue with God about saving Sedom.
One take on these three events interprets them as a single continuous scene, in which Avraham interrupts his meeting with God so that he can tend to his guests. Only when he has finished with these visitors does he resume his conversation with God. This interpretation of the scene assumes great audacity on Avraham’s part, he dares to put the needs of human beings before the Divine. From here we learn the great importance of hospitality, teaching us the principle that “Greater is hospitality than receiving the divine.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that in fact “Avraham knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things, but one. We honour God by honouring His image, human beings. There is only one thing in the universe on which He has set His image, the human person.” In serving these guests, Avraham was serving Hashem.
Hospitality is such an integral part of Avraham’s character, that it is no wonder that his nephew Lot seems to have imbibed this trait. We see parallels between Avraham and Lot in the way that they respond to their visitors. Both sit at the entrance, of a tent for Avraham, the gate for Lot, seemingly waiting to greet visitors. When they spot approaching guests they bow down to them, offer to wash their feet and provide food for them. Since it is evening when Lot’s guests arrive, he even offers them accommodation for the night. This is highly commendable. What is less so, is the way he responds later that night. The inhabitants of the town surround Lot’s home, demanding that he hands over these two visitors. He refuses, wanting to protect the two men. Then, quite alarmingly, Lot instead offers them his two daughters. His idea of hospitality seems to be completely skewed.
It got me thinking, how often do we sacrifice our children for our guests? Not to that extreme of course, but it is all too possible that at times we too prioritise our guests over our children. Every so often it is useful for us to reflect on the hours of preparation invested in advance, or the time spent entertaining our guests – as opposed to being with our children – is it coming at their expense?
It is worthwhile thinking not just about whether we invest the same time, energy or money in our children as we do in our guests, but also about the way we treat and speak to them both. Dr. Haim Ginott, a well known Israeli teacher and psychologist, wrote in his book Between Parent and Child :
“Parents need to learn to respond to their children as they do to guests.”
The language we parents use with guests is protective of their feelings rather than critical. He offers the example of a guest who forgets her umbrella. We wouldn’t berate her, compare her to her siblings, or tell her that she is always forgetting things. We wouldn’t label her a scatterbrain, or ask if she will ever learn. We would simply hand it to her and say “here is your umbrella, Yael.”
Parashat Vayera teaches us so much about the significance of hospitality and how we should try to work on this valued mitzvah and emulate Avraham, but let’s not do so at the expense of our children; we should remember that they too should be treated as guests.