Vayera: An Inn and an Orchard

I read the story quite some time ago. It was told by a young woman who boarded an airplane early one winter Friday morning. She was on her way to Chicago from New York to spend a weekend there with friends.

She made herself comfortable in her seat, prepared some reading material, and was confident that the plane would take off more or less on time and that she would arrive at her destination in little more than an hour.

But that was not to be. Instead, she experienced what all “frequent flyers” are familiar with– unanticipated delays. At first, the pilot assured the passengers that the delays would be brief and that they would soon be on their way.

However, time dragged on, and the young woman, as well as the rest of the passengers, became a bit concerned. They all had appointments in Chicago, or flight connections to make, or were simply upset about the prospect of being strapped into an uncomfortable seat for a longer period of time than expected.

For some of the passengers, however, and our young woman was among them, there was a “higher” concern. It was a short Friday, and sundown was early, only six or seven hours away. Would they make it to Chicago in time to reach their ultimate destinations before the Sabbath?

The young woman who related the story described the scene. At first, the several Jews aboard the plane took no notice of each other, each minding his or her own business. However, as the delay became more protracted, and the possibility of being stranded became more real, the Jews present began to converse with each other and share their anxieties.

Finally, the plane took off. But the worries of the Shabbat observers were not over. About halfway through the flight the pilot announced that they would not be able to land in Chicago after all. Instead, they were being diverted to Milwaukee.

By this time, there were little more than three hours until sundown. The group of Shabbat observers huddled in the back of the plane, and two of them assured the others, and there were 10 or 12 others, that they knew several people in Milwaukee who could host them for Shabbos, if they would land in the Milwaukee airport in time.

They asked the crew if they could somehow call ahead and contact their acquaintances in Milwaukee. That was done, and the Milwaukee friends assured the group that they would not only put them up and feed them well, but they would have a van at the airport ready to speed them to their Shabbat accommodations.

The young woman had been sitting next to a non-Jewish couple who couldn’t help but eavesdrop upon the entire conversation and the arrangements that ten passengers were making to spend a weekend with total strangers. They expressed their astonishment to the young woman, saying: “Are you all going to spend an entire weekend with people you don’t know? And why would they put all of you up? Are you sure this is not some kind of a trap? Will you be safe?”

The young woman reassured her co-passengers with this one brief statement: “That’s Jewish hospitality.”

The reader of this column, who is surely familiar with Jewish hospitality, can anticipate the happy ending of the story. The plane landed with barely an hour to spare, the van appeared, the group was rushed to the Jewish neighborhood, everyone had comfortable accommodations, and the delicious Shabbat meals were especially lively as the group played Jewish geography and learned about the many connections they had with each other.

But the reader may want to know more about what the young woman told her non-Jewish companions, expanding upon the concept of Jewish hospitality.

She began by explaining to them that Jews read selections from the Bible in the synagogue each Sabbath. She told them that the selection which would be read tomorrow was Genesis 18:1-22:24. She introduced them to the vocabulary of the weekly Torah portion and informed them that the name of that week’s parsha was Parshat Vayera.

She went on to briefly introduce them to the inspiring personality of Abraham, our forefather. But time was running out, and she could not even begin to narrate the stories in this Torah portion that describe Abraham’s hospitality.

She told them that Abraham was the model for hospitality that all Jews try to emulate, and she shared with them one brief verse, which appears toward the end of the parsha: “Abraham planted a tamarisk at Beer-Sheba, and invoked there the name of the Lord, the Everlasting God.” (Genesis 21:33)

Of course, she had to define “tamarisk,” which she did by telling them that it was a small tree or shrub. But then she went on to relate the following homily to them:

“I had a teacher at the Jewish parochial school I attended. He pointed out to us that the Hebrew word for tamarisk is aishel.

“The rabbis of old disputed the meaning of aishel. Some said that it meant an orchard. But others contended that it meant a hostel, an inn.

“Our teacher shared with us the deeper meaning of this dispute, as taught by a much more contemporary rabbi, Solomon Joseph Zevin. Rabbi Zevin held that orchard and inn represent the two qualities which comprise hospitality. The orchard symbolizes life, growth, nurturance, regeneration. This is the emotional component of hospitality, the provision of sustenance, of care and compassion, and, when necessary, sympathy and healing.

“The other quality is symbolized by the inn—a structure, solid, protective, safe and secure. The hospitable person, and Abraham was the archetype of such a person, provides his guest with both the life-giving sustenance provided by the orchard and the sense of security provided by the home, by the inn.”

The two non-Jewish passengers thanked the young woman for the lesson. They added, however, the following remarks:

“We too study the Bible, and we remember that Abraham was called ‘the father of the multitude of nations. He modeled hospitality for all mankind.

“Nevertheless, we concede that there is something special about the Jewish hospitality that we are now witnessing and that you are apparently about to experience.

“The truly hospitable person opens his or her home even to the total stranger—so much so that total strangers can rely upon that hospitality. You are truly a blessed people, and, although we will never meet your hosts, we ask that you share with them our profound admiration.”

When the young woman boarded that airplane, she expected a very ordinary experience. Instead, she was blessed with the opportunity not only to benefit from Jewish hospitality, but to share the lessons of hospitality with others in a way that achieved that highest of all spiritual objectives, a “sanctification of the name of God,” a kiddush Hashem.