Avraham, Lot, Walt Whitman and Dionysus:  Models of Hospitality in Parshat Vayeira

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

(Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

Abraham’s Three Visitors (Jan Goeree, circa 1700)

Avraham’s defining trait in the midrash, and to a certain extent in the text of the Torah itself, is the trait of hospitality. When the three emissaries of God appear to him by the terebinths of Mamre, we hear in detail how he and Sarah rush to make them feel at home. Avraham invites his guests to “lean and loafe” beneath a tree. The midrash is reported to say that the tent of Avraham was open on all four sides so that he and Sarah could welcome guests approaching from any direction. It is striking that Avraham of all people is defined by this trait of openness given that a crucial element of his legacy was shutting the doors on pagan worship and establishing an exclusive covenant with God. Later on in Parshat Vayeira, his nephew Lot echoes Avraham’s spirit of openness when he welcomes two of the emissaries and also treats them with generosity. However, Lot’s openness soon turns into an ugly distortion as we see that in Sodom “hospitality” necessarily involves exploitation and taking advantage of others.

Hospitality rituals were an important feature of the ancient Near Eastern world – and a sense of the importance of these formal and informal customs lingers throughout the Middle East until today. Continue reading “Avraham, Lot, Walt Whitman and Dionysus:  Models of Hospitality in Parshat Vayeira”

Parshat Noach: Abundance, Restraint and the Porridge Pot Myth

The following interpretation of Parshat Noach comes by way of the book of Vayikra, and specifically Mary Douglas’s great work of biblical analysis, Leviticus as Literature.  Douglas’s book emerged from her work as an anthropologist studying various cultures and their sacred taboos. This in turn piqued her interest in the food restrictions listed in Leviticus 11, and she began to explore the question of what makes certain animals prohibited for consumption. One of her many insights is that cultures don’t only prohibit things that are bad, unclean or disgusting – sometimes taboos exist for the purpose of preserving or protecting a revered entity. Douglas cites the example of “winged swarming things” (שֶׁרֶץ הָעוֹף), which are forbidden by the Torah for human consumption, yet their description suggests a kind of overflowing or “teeming” quality that is associated with fertility and expansiveness. In Parshat Noach, the Torah echoes this language in God’s command regarding reproduction shortly after the flood recedes: “Be fertile, then, and increase; abound on the earth and increase on it” וְאַתֶּם, פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ; שִׁרְצוּ בָאָרֶץ, וּרְבוּ-בָהּ. (Gen. 9:7)

According to Douglas, the challenge of what to do with this fertile abundance – how to nourish it, protect it, but also contain it and keep it from “taking over” – is part of what it means to establish a covenant with God. Fertility is something that is addressed by the covenant but is also separate from it. The boundless and expansive spirit of procreation that is represented by the swarming creatures is precious to God and to humanity/the Jewish people, but the covenant is necessary to order and restrict this overflow.


There is an obvious connection between this tension and the story of the deluge in Parshat Noach. In this story, water – typically associated with blessing – takes over the world. When God eventually restricts these waters humanity is presented with a covenant, a concrete sign that God has contained this overflow in order to leave room for humans and animals to live.

Continue reading “Parshat Noach: Abundance, Restraint and the Porridge Pot Myth”

“In my end is my beginning”: T.S. Eliot, Kate Atkinson, and the Yearly Torah Cycle

This year on Simchat Torah we experienced that wonderful transition, repeated every year, when we conclude the Torah and then start over again with the creation of the world out of chaos and void. While the book of Deuteronomy, set as the Jews prepare to enter the land of Israel, may itself be read as a kind of beginning rather than an ending, it also functions as a tragic denouement for Moses. Moses is, of course, prevented from entering the Promised Land he spent his whole life moving toward, as God tells him, “I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross there.” This line, as well as the moment we learn that Moses will buried in an anonymous burial place somewhere in the land of Moab, never fails to move me. Deuteronomy may partly be intended to capture the rousing national entry to the land of Israel, but the very end of it is pure tragedy. It is the human story of Moses, the greatest prophet to ever arise in Israel, who nevertheless succumbed to human frailty and human limitations.


Continue reading ““In my end is my beginning”: T.S. Eliot, Kate Atkinson, and the Yearly Torah Cycle”