Parashat Vayera opens with a scene that lies at the heart of Jewish ethic of hospitality. In the heat of the day, three strangers pass by Avraham's tent, and in flurry of activity Avraham welcomes them in , offers them food, slaughters an animal, bakes bread, and serves them a sumptuous meal.
We, the readers (and products of elementary Jewish day school education) all know that these are angels, divine messengers, but Avraham thinks they are merely three strangers. Avraham's hospitality is astounding in its energy, its sincerity and depth. Would we ever beg three homeless individuals to have a huge meal at our home?
I found myself using Avraham as a paradigm of openeness and acceptance in a recent conversation when I remarked how we in the Orthodox Jewish community are frequently inward looking, leaving outsiders - visitors and newly-religious people - feeling unwelcome, whether inadvertantly, or deliberately. The Orthodox world can often be wary and judgmental to Jews from other denominations, as with those whose actions, dress, or body language communicate the fact that they are non-observant. We have subtle codes that help us identify the members of our sub-group, and we frequently do not realise the degree to which our uniformity is off-putting and unwelcoming. When one encounters the rare Orthodox environment which is genuinely welcoming to ALL Jews, one realises how much effort and thoughtfulness needs to be invested to ensure that visitors feel fully comfortable in our communities.
(For an interesting piece about the Orthodox world in this regard, see Allan Nadler's article here.)
So as I said, I was talking about how Avraham just welcomes strangers to his home without any entrance requirements - no kippa, no Shabbat, no dress code - just a warm welcome.
and then I recalled this Rashi:
רש"י בראשית פרק יח
ורחצו רגליכם - כסבור שהם ערביים שמשתחוים לאבק רגליהם והקפיד שלא להכניס עבודה זרה לביתו.
"Wash your feet: He thought that they were arabs who worshipped the dust on their feet. Since he was particular not to admit idolatry to his house ( he asked them to wash off the dust."
In other words, the Midrash inserts that Avraham DOES have entry restrictions and particular standards of conduct for one to be admitted. Idolaters are not welcome unless they divest themselves of their idolatry!
It is amazing that a simple Rashi like this makes a huge difference in perspective. Do we welcome outsiders warmly, without question, or do we insist that in some manner or form, they conform to our modes of behaviour and belief, that they not interupt and obstruct our world, our value system?