To Dwell in Possibility: Avraham, the Soil and the Clan in Parshat Chayei Sarah

Guest Post by Robert M. Blum

Last week, Sarah compared Walt Whitman to Avraham, whose “expansiveness” as a figure and founder of various peoples, including the Israelites, is exemplified by his hospitality in Parshat Vayeira. The conceptual key to this reading and comparison is Lewis Hyde’s notion of “gift exchange,” particularly with respect to art, which differs from market exchange in its spiritual underpinnings as well as the bonds formed through gifts. This notion of a gift economy was actually first developed by Marcel Mauss in his anthropological study of pre-modern societies also titled The Gift. A review of the Avraham narratives in light of Mauss’ broad conception of gift exchange reveals aspects of Avraham and his legacy that seem to be in tension with the expansive Whitmanian figure we encounter in Parshat Vayeira.

Continue reading “To Dwell in Possibility: Avraham, the Soil and the Clan in Parshat Chayei Sarah”

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”