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)
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.
George Steiner has addressed the way in which hospitality is also fundamental to arts and culture; how the virtue of hospitality should also inform how human beings encounter and receive art. Lewis Hyde’s book The Gift, which has a cult following among artists of many stripes, is not primarily about hospitality rituals per se, yet its treatment of gift culture reflects upon many dimensions of hospitality. Hyde discusses the difference between a commodity-based economy, built on a quid-pro-quo transactional model, and a “gift”-based economy. In a gift economy, you can’t really put a price on anything, transactions take place through a chain of giving; and rather than compensate the giver for its value, the recipient of a gift has an obligation to keep that gift moving by turning around and giving to others. In modern times our economies are based (thankfully) on the notion of equitable transactions, but the realm of art remains one governed by the gift. A painting can of course be bought and sold in a traditional transaction, but as a work of art it can never be truly owned. Hyde associates the gift-economy with virtues such as generosity and expansiveness. A true artist, according to Hyde, embodies the spirit of the gift as he gives and receives with abandon. He does not hoard his talents and keep them for himself – he shares them with the world and this gift presumably keeps moving. For Hyde, Walt Whitman exemplifies this spirit both through the messages of his poems and in his very persona. Whitman’s refusal to erect barriers between himself and his fellow men, and his incredible generosity in his personal life and his art, infuses his poetry with a special kind of expansiveness. Hyde does not discuss Avraham in this specific regard, but it is likely that Hyde would recognize Avraham’s distinct quality of hospitality as being a fundamental part of what makes him a man of God.
In The Gift, Hyde also describes what happens when hospitality goes awry, specifically in reference to Native-American “potlatch” or gift-giving ceremonies. In theory, the potlatch is a noble expression of generosity and the impermanence of material possessions. However, at times they have historically turned into episodes of bizarre and seemingly wanton destruction of material goods. Hyde believes some of this is a product of the toxic combination of Native American gift culture and European style capitalism. Hyde also invokes the festivals surrounding the Greek god Dionysus in order to make sense of these festivities. Dionysus is a Greek god who is dismembered and then reconstituted, or “broken into higher life,” and the celebrations surrounding his cult were traditionally decadent and debaucherous. Dionysus is also associated with wine and fermentation, the process by which grapes turn into wine also evokes that path from destructionto regeneration. Potlatch and Dionysus represent a darker side of gift culture.
A key feature of Hyde’s argument in The Gift is that generosity begets generosity. An important feature of any gift is that it keep moving, and not only in a reciprocal direction. The chain of events that we see in Vayeira exemplify that kind of movement. Avraham treats the messengers of God with generosity, and he is then the recipient of the wonderful gift of a child from God (not from the messengers). Perhaps it is even in response to Avraham’s spirit of openness that God in turn opens Himself up to Avraham, as he says in 18:17, “Shall I hide from Avraham what I am about to do”? God then reveals to Avraham His plans to destroy Sodom, and Avraham argues for God to instead save its people. Many have commented on how Avraham’s arguments here reflect his sense of social justice and the inherent unfairness of destroying any potential innocents along with the guilty. Yet I think Avraham’s entreaties here also reflect a certain generosity of spirit that is not necessarily founded on principles of abstract justice as much as the same sense of magnanimity that motivated his earlier actions.
Shortly after this however, the episode of Sodom’s destruction also demonstrates what happens when ritualized generosity morphs into a grotesque parody of itself. In Genesis 19, Lot greets the two mysterious strangers who visit him with a series of hospitable gestures that are reminiscent of Avraham’s earlier in the parashah. Jewish sources contrast their two brands of hospitality, pointing out deficiencies of Lot’s in comparison with Avraham’s. These critiques of Lot seems motivated not only by textual cues but also by a generally negative view of him, especially given what is to come. When the people of
Sodom hear that Lot has shared his home with guests, they demand they he “share” the guests with them too, presumably in a sexual sense. Lot does not want to be a bad host, so in an act that is not so much a gesture of hospitality as a caricature of it, he offers-up his own daughters to the hedonistic horde instead. Despite Avraham’s best efforts, Sodom ultimately reveals itself to be beyond redemption, partially because they seem to have perverted the conception of what hospitality involves. When faced with Lot’s open hand they take from it and demand more. This is in contrast to the spirit of “the gift,” as exemplified by Avraham and articulated by Hyde, which is to keep the spirit of generosity moving. On the other hand, in the demand for Lot to share his guests with the inhabitants of Sodom, and Lot’s own willingness to give over his daughters, the whole episode does express a kind of dark openhandedness, in the mode of potlatch or Dionysian worship.
The rapacious sexuality we see exhibited by the inhabitants of Sodom is not the only Dionysian element in Parshat Vayeira. In the episode shortly following the destruction of Sodom, Lot’s daughters inebriate him with wine and then cross an ancient forbidden boundary in order to “maintain life.” It’s hard to say that Lot’s daughters are sinning here, as they seem to truly believe this necessary for the continuation of humankind, but it’s striking to contrast the two models of hospitality exhibited by Avraham and Lot, respectively. Avraham’s hospitality is bright and airy, future-oriented and constructive. One can imagine him spreading his interconnected messages of monotheism and hospitality in a generous Whitmanian mode, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself/And what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.“ Lot and his family’s model of giving, or “letting go,” represents a kind of Dionysian descent into the darker regions of human inclination. Just as Sodom needs to be destroyed before it is reconstituted, in the Lot episodes the death-instinct and life-instinct are closely intertwined.
Lewis Hyde does not spend much time investigating or distinguishing between these two models of generosity. He is more invested in simply raising awareness of the values of gift-giving, generosity and hospitality to begin with, as he believes they are easily overlooked in a culture that is obsessed by material acquisitions and consumption. Yet the contrast between Avraham’s life-affirming and Lot’s destructive model of hospitality is, I believe, significant with respect to the Biblical narrative, and may even offer some insight into what otherwise seems to be a disconnected element of the Torah portion: Akeidat Yitzchak, the Binding of Isaac.
Many read the Akeidah as an act of blind and heroic faith on the part of Avraham. Others understand it to be an articulation of the Torah’s supersession of the pagan custom of sacrificing one’s firstborn. This second group focuses on the moment when God tells Avraham that he does not need to sacrifice his son. Yet, in interpreting the story and Avraham’s actions here, it may be instructive to examine the only other case of child sacrifice we see in the book of Genesis – when Lot offers up his daughters to the mob. For Lot, this is the ultimate act of generosity, of giving up something that is dear to him to satisfy the imperative of hospitality. When Avraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, perhaps he also interprets this request in a similar vein as reflecting the darker side of Dionysian-style self-abnegation and sacrifice, of the intertwining of the death-instinct with the life-instinct. The triumph of the story is that Avraham learns that he can have his cake and eat it too – that his generosity toward God does not have to involve losing something of himself. As Walt Whitman put it: “I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own/ And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own.” Hospitality is in some ways the inverse of sacrifice, it represents the possibility of giving without depletion. Akeidat Yitzchak represents one powerful paradigm for understanding the life of faith, and too often in Jewish history we have seen our own Yitzchaks bound and led to slaughter. We should not forget, however, that Avraham is defined primarily by his expansive and life-affirming hospitality, and this too can enrich our sense of the Jewish mission in the world.