April 21, 2024
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April 21, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

We are now entering the cycle of stories about our cherished forebears, Avraham and Sarah. These stories constitute some of the most identity-forming ones in our schools—“Be like Avraham,” we tell our children; “Run to welcome the stranger.” In next week’s parsha, when Avraham is ailing from his circumcision, we read that he still leaped to greet the three angels God had sent to him, to shower them with hospitality and give them a user experience worthy of the Ritz.

The image of Avraham’s tent, with doors open on all four sides, does not, of course, come from pshat, but rather from a commentary on Pirkei Avot 1:5 on Rabbi Yosi ben Yochanan Ish Yerushalayim’s statement that one’s house should be wide open and that the poor be allowed to be members of the household. Thirteenth-century Catalonian commentator Rabbeinu Yonah said:

“[A person’s] house [should] be on the road in a tight spot so that passersby should come into there; and that it should be open on four sides, so that from all sides that they come, they will find an open door and they will turn into it.”

In a political activism class I teach, we unpacked what forms the basis of Avraham’s appeal to God—the Judge of the world—to do proper justice by not killing the innocent when He destroys Sodom. Avraham acts in an extreme way when he defends the denizens of Sodom and Gomorroh: He implores God on behalf of people he does not know. He metaphorically invites them into his tent, sees them as part of his own community and therefore pleads on their behalf.

My students and I then took a look at what the people of Sodom were like: They do the exact opposite of what Avraham does. When the angels, strangers, arrive on their doorstep, Lot, knowing what his fellow citizens are like, warns the strangers not to sleep in the town square. What should be a safe place—inside the walls of an inhabited city—is actually sinister and dangerous. Lot has an accurate view of his community; when he hides the angels in his own home to protect them, the Sodomites bang on his door demanding he let the guests out so that they can rape them. This particularly graphic detail sets before us the two extremes reflected in Avraham and the people of Sodom. The former feels empathy for humankind and extends himself beyond the letter of the law in order to save them. The latter sees the stranger as an object to be exploited in extreme and violent ways for personal pleasure and gratification.

Rabbeinu Yonah’s commentary about Avraham emphasizes this contrast. Not only should we see ourselves in the stranger, that is, rush to greet her and make her feel at home. Rabbeinu Yonah tells us to set up our abodes so they are situated where the stranger sojourns; we should build our homes so that no matter the direction in which the stranger is traveling, he will find us and enter our spaces easily, finding them warm and welcoming.

We should be inspired to think about the effect such a recipe for hospitality has on us: A home in the middle of a well-traveled spot means that a diverse set of travelers will enter. The host in such a home would meet people with a multitude of life experiences, from myriad backgrounds, and having varying perspectives and opinions. This host would naturally and organically cultivate empathy for those around him by understanding where they’re coming from and what their needs are. A home filled with a conglomerate of people also means its host becomes sensitive to the many different types of needs that people have. Some are definitely monetary, as Yosi ben Yochanan’s original statement in the Mishna reveals, but many are emotional, spiritual, physical.

This is particularly on my mind as we enter the high school admissions season. All of our community’s eighth graders deserve to feel that our community is opening its doors to them, looking for ways to accept their unique selves and perspectives and fill their needs. Current studies show that adolescents are especially vulnerable now—they’re experiencing anxiety, depression and other emotional challenges at increasingly higher rates than ever before.

Like Avraham, we should be running to greet them and offering multiple entry points into our schools. We need to show our children that our tent is wide and generous enough to shelter them.


Tikvah Wiener is head of school of The Idea School, an Orthodox, project-based learning high school in Tenafly, New Jersey. She lives in Teaneck.

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