There is a stark contrast between Avraham and Lot’s approach to Hachnasat Orchim (hospitality). Avraham is considered the model of hachnasat orchim, as the Torah highlights at the beginning of this week’s Parsha. By contrast, Lot picked up on Avraham’s hachnasat orchim but didn’t internalize it as part of his value system. As such, when the guests (angels in disguise) come to visit him in Sodom, he goes to the extreme to fulfill hachnasat orchim, to the point of even offering his daughters to protect his guests from harm. A classic case of misguided altruism! As the Midrash Tanchuma describes: the way of the world is for a man to die defending his family, whereas Lot gave away his daughters willingly to protect his guests.
If Lot had understood how Avraham performed hachnasat orchim, he would have realized that every act of chesed doesn’t come easily. Instead, true chesed comes at some expense to something else. For example, when one invites people over, they don’t spend as much private time with family. Avraham knew how to strike this balance, but Lot missed this lesson.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (he should have a refuah shelema) shares the following story from Stephen Carter’s book Civility:
In 1966 an eleven-year-old African-American boy moved with his family to a hitherto white neighbourhood in Washington. Sitting with his brothers and sisters on the front step of the house, he waited to see how they would be greeted. They were not. Passers-by turned to look at them, but no one gave them a smile or even a glance of recognition. All the fearful stories he had heard about how whites treated blacks seemed to be coming true. Years later, writing about those first days in their new home, he says, “I knew we were not welcome here. I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I knew we should not have moved here …”
As he was thinking those thoughts, a woman passed by on the other side of the road. She turned to the children and with a broad smile said, “Welcome!” Disappearing into the house, she emerged minutes later with a tray laden with drinks and cream-cheese and jelly sandwiches which she brought over to the children, making them feel at home. That moment – the young man later wrote – changed his life. It gave him a sense of belonging where there was none before. It made him realize, at a time when race relations in the United States were still fraught, that a black family could feel at home in a white area and that there could be relationships that were color-blind. Over the years, he learned to admire much about the woman across the street, but it was that first spontaneous act of greeting that became, for him, a definitive memory. It broke down a wall of separation and turned strangers into friends.
The young man, Stephen Carter, eventually became a law professor at Yale and wrote a book about what he learned that day. He called it Civility. The name of the woman, he tells us, was Sara Kestenbaum, and she died all too young. He adds that it was no coincidence that she was a religious Jew. “In the Jewish tradition,” he notes, such civility is called “hessed – the doing of acts of kindness – which is in turn derived from the understanding that human beings are made in the image of God.”
“Civility,” he adds, “itself may be seen as part of hessed: it does indeed require kindnesses toward our fellow citizens, including the ones who are strangers, and even when it is hard.”
“To this day”, he adds, “I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.”
As students of Avraham Avinu, we are charged with finding the proper balance, making sure that we consider the potential side-effects of our acts of chesed, while at the same time not using “personal needs” as a constant excuse to avoid doing chesed.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay