Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

The kindness of strangers – in the parasha and at the protests (33)

'Biden, Macron, Help! Save us'. Pro-democracy demonstration outside the Knesset. Photo credit: Diana Lipton

This is my 33rd consecutive post connecting the parasha and Israel’s pro-democracy protests. To receive e-mail notifications for future posts, write to me using the contact form on my banner (above right).  

This week’s parasha, Ki Tetztei, specifies two nations, the Ammonites and Moabites, who can never be admitted to the congregation of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:4). The first justification for this exclusion concerns hospitality: They did not meet you with food and water on your journey after you left Egypt (Deuteronomy 23:5). For their lack of hospitality, and because the Moabites hired the non-Israelite prophet Bilam to curse Israel, Israel must never seek their peace or benefit as long as you live (v. 7).

For a clearer idea of what God is prohibiting here, we can turn to the prophet Jeremiah. Addressing the community exiled from Jerusalem to Babylon in the 6th century BCE, God says: Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its peace will be your peace (Jeremiah 29:7).

With respect to the Babylonians, God ordered the Israelites to intercede with him on their behalf, to pray for their health and welfare for the benefit of all. In contrast, God warned Israel that it must never attempt to improve the situation of the Ammonites and Moabites, presumably also by intercession.

Indirectly, at least, the Ammonites and Moabites were connected from the outset with failed intercession. Their original ancestors were the sons conceived by Lot’s daughters when, believing themselves and their father to be the only survivors of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19:23-28), they got their father drunk and had sex with him (Genesis 19:30-38).

Before God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he told Abraham what he planned to do, giving Abraham an opportunity to intercede (Genesis 18:18-21). If there are fifty righteous inhabitants of Sodom, God said, I will not destroy the cities. But there were not fifty righteous inhabitants, or forty, or thirty…  Abraham bargained with God until he conceded that even ten righteous inhabitants could secure the safety of the city. But ten righteous people could not be found (Genesis 18:25-32).

What qualities were God and Abraham looking for? Or to put it another way, what is righteousness? The wider narrative context generates a definition. After the negotiations with God over the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, two of the three angels who’d announced the forthcoming birth of Isaac resumed their journey and arrived in Sodom. Hospitality was a central motif of the angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15), and it remained central.

Lot invites the angels to stay in his home. Initially they refuse, but he insists, offering them hospitality that’s not so different from Abraham’s.

Genesis 19:2 When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, 2he said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.” But they said, “No, we will spend the night in the square.”  3But he urged them strongly, so they turned his way and entered his house. He prepared a feast for them and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.

But no sooner had the angels lain down for the night, than the people of Sodom gather around the house, demanding to have sex with them. (This episode is often interpreted as a comment on homosexual sex. Much more plausibly, it’s about sex between human and divine beings, a subject which, not coincidentally, is raised just before God’s previous act of destruction, the Flood, Genesis 6:1-4.)

Lot tries to appease the men of Sodom by offering his unmarried daughters instead.

Genesis 19:6 So Lot went out to them to the entrance, shut the door behind him, 7and said, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong. 8Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.”

Sacrificing your children to protect your guests is hospitality run amok. It’s not entirely surprising when the two daughters Lot almost sacrificed end up having incestuous sex with him, producing two enemies of Israel into the bargain.

There are many forms of righteousness. One is hospitality. The focus on Sodom’s lack of hospitality in relation to the absence of righteousness could be arbitrary. But the Sodomites’ failure to be hospitable is paired with the failure of Abraham’s intercession in part, I think, because hospitality and intercession share common ground.

Hospitality is usually conceived in terms of giving. We take something that belongs to us, such as food, and transfer it to others. But, more importantly, hospitality involves receiving – not gifts, but guests. True hospitality entails welcoming outsiders into our private domain and making the changes required to accommodate them. For example, we may need to adapt our kitchen so that guests with different dietary needs – kashrut, coeliac, serious nut allergies – can eat our food. We may need to change our sleeping arrangements so that everyone has a bed. Hospitality is a two-way street. We give out (food, space), and we take in (guests).

Intercession has the best chance of being effective when the beneficiary welcomes it and is willing to accommodate whatever changes occur in its aftermath. It’s a mistake to imagine that, once effective intercession has occurred, a bad situation will simply return to the way it was before things went wrong. External intervention tends to bring with it an element of the outside.

From this perspective, hospitality is an excellent predictor of successful intercession. A hospitable person is predisposed to welcome external intervention – a guest of sorts in her or his private domain – and to be open to change. Perhaps this explains why God tells Israel not to seek the peace of the Ammonites and Moabites. Since they weren’t hospitable, intercession on their behalf wouldn’t have worked anyway.

Several recent news reports criticized an AIPAC-sponsored visit of US congressmen to Israel for failing to introduce the visitors to pro-democracy protest leaders. I have no information to add to either the critical reports or AIPAC’s rebuttals, but I do want to share something I learned from friends who gave Shabbat hospitality to the visitors. Among their guests were congressmen who said they wanted to support the protest movement but didn’t know how to voice criticism of what’s happening here without undermining American support for Israel. They want to intercede for us but don’t know how.

One obvious answer, though it’s harder in practice than in theory, is to emphasize the difference between the Coalition Government — elected by a majority of a mere 30,000, with plummeting approval ratings – and the people.

A better answer – indeed, one of the answers my friends gave the visiting congressmen – is to urge would-be intercessors to experience the demonstrations for themselves and report back in detail. As far as possible, the protest movement should speak for itself. Not all Israelis in the pro-democracy camp welcome external intervention, but many do. And more and more of us are hoping that, with or without a little help from our friends, Israel will not revert to what it was before this nightmare began. It will be better.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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