Abraham and the welcoming of guests

(Photo: Unsplash/Sixteen Miles Out)

I first met my local Member of Parliament in a local church hall. It was the hustings for the 2010 election and our local boundaries had been changed. I was the only Jew there – the others were all church-goers, including the vicar who had invited me. And to be honest, I didn't feel either safe or secure in the church. It wasn't my normal habitat, and I felt like a fish out of water. But this was the only hustings in our (mainly Jewish) area, and I felt it my civic duty to attend in order to assess the person who would ultimately become our new MP.

In the church hall, I was sat next to a bullish young man who was about to embark on a clergy training course. He had 1 GCE 'O' level and would later ask for my help with basic 'Old Testament' knowledge. He completed the clergy course and is now a vicar in the area.

I tell this tale because of what happened next. The person who would become a servant of G-d, with me next to him, demanded to know from each parliamentary candidate how they would be funding church schools if they were successful. The 'smooth' candidate (imported from outside our area) agreed that funding church schools was a priority of any government and would, he assured his audience, be on the top of his list.

But the other candidate, for whom I eventually voted, gently reminded his audience that they were the sole church in a predominantly Jewish area, and any government funds had to be divided equally between schools. And the Church, he added, should not be asking for special privileges in a democracy – especially as they enjoyed so many privileges already, he ventured to suggest.

I was reminded of this event by the recent murder of Sir David Amess MP in a church in Leigh-on-Sea.

I actually visited Leigh-on-Sea many years ago when I was guest of honour at an annual event put on by the Council of Christians and Jews, who were most concerned at the hostility of the then local bishop, and needed a comforting talk, so they chose that particular area in which to hold their main annual event with me as guest speaker to jolly them up....!

Alas, Christian Jewish relations took a turn for the worse and the main Jewish organizer in that area of Essex ended up emigrating to Haifa in northern Israel, where I believe she is very happy. But she certainly knew how to welcome a guest. And as well as being afforded every courtesy during my talk, I was also given a grand tour which included Leigh-on-Sea.

Why do I say 'welcoming guests' rather than 'hospitality'? Hospitality has a classical ring to it, which isn't warming. 'Welcoming guests' says it all, and keeps to the Hebrew. Hebrew is of course the sacred language, and it's always best to stick to the original. And in addition, welcoming guests is what Shabbat's famous Torah reading is all about - Genesis 18-22.

In the heat of the day, 99-year-old Abraham, recovering from his painful circumcision (the sign of his eternal covenant with G-d), notices three strangers and rushes out to welcome them into his home. What does he offer these strangers? A cup of tea perhaps, with a plain biscuit if they are lucky. That's part of it, of course, but what he actually gives them is entry into an entire new way of life.

Three days after he experiences his covenant with G-d, in the form of circumcision, Abraham overlooks age, heat and pain, in order to do what is expected of him as the first Jewish person – open his arms to those in need.

It doesn't matter who these three guests were and are. The emphasis for Jews is on the individual's act of kindness, not the status of the guests. Yes, these guests may well be three major angels who would later help Abraham along the way. And yes, they may have had something of the divine within them. But this isn't the important factor here. The important factor is how you and I behave in a similar situation with every individual person, regardless of their status or rank.

The importance is always on our freedom of choice to accept or reject.

And this is, I would argue, what Sir David Amess MP (whose name in Hebrew means 'truth') represented for everyone who knew him. His noblest act was to be open to all, regardless of safety. And in the end he paid the supreme price.

Sir David will be remembered in the Jewish community above all for his stubborn conviction that the real heroes are people like Raoul Wallenberg, the Swede who, in his own day, and against the wishes of his own community, went ahead and saved thousands of Hungarian Jews at the end of the War, for which he sacrificed his own life.

Even when his own Swedish people disowned Wallenberg for his courage, Sir David fought hard in order to construct a statue to this Righteous Gentile in London.

The news of his murder has been in the Israeli headlines for days and that is because true friends of the Jews are rare. He was one of those, and we Jews cherish our friends and never take them for granted.

I can't help thinking in addition of the famous story of 'Sodom and Gomorrah', which comes later in Shabbat's Torah reading, and is thoroughly misunderstood most of the time. This story is also about 'welcoming guests', but in the wrong way. There is a right way and a wrong way to welcome guests – and Abraham's welcome of his three guests gives life, whereas those in Sodom and Gomorrah ultimately bring death.

Sir David Amess MP made people laugh; he helped them to be happier; he took stands when those were necessary and fought for causes he believed in, but never took himself too seriously. Abraham himself, although espousing the one G-d against all the paganism from which he had escaped, was nevertheless capable of arguing with G-d when he deemed it necessary.

And this is especially the case when G-d wants to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and Abraham argues that there might at least be 10 individuals who are 'innocent'. Alas, it wasn't to be. G-d destroyed the cities – they weren't to look back (Lot's wife did look back, with dire consequences for her), but rather should carry on in their quest towards the Promised Land. But at least Abraham had tried his best, and, at the end of the day, that is all we can do.

An indirect outcome of the way Abraham behaved is that many people are reported to have espoused Abraham's attitude and adopted his way of life. This way of life is 'Judaism' – not a religion, but a way of life.

I recently encountered a quiet American who had managed the gruelling conversion process and is now a Jew. I would never ask anyone at this stage why they had converted – it's not up to me. But I asked her if she were attending Shul at present under Covid conditions. 'Sort of,' she said, but the main thing for her about Judaism, she told me, is 'the community spirit and the welcoming of guests.'

Sir David Amess said this about us Jews: 'I would have been proud to be born a Jew.'

How many people in public life are happy to state that they would have been proud to be born a Jew? Very few! 

The fact is that the Torah law of welcoming guests is the paradigm act, coming as it does just after Abraham's entry into the covenant of Judaism, as marked by his brit (circumcision) at the age of 99.

Despite what others say about us, what Jews are about is being generous and open, especially to the 'other', and definitely not judgemental. One wonders why people simply don't understand that about us. And where do we get that from? From stories like the story of Abraham and his guests, from our Torah, which is not dead but alive and kicking.

No doubt the words of Sir David Amess - 'I would have been proud to be born a Jew' - and his deeds on our behalf, exemplify this appreciation of our tiny and much maligned religion.

As does the evidence from the huge number of people currently converting to Judaism on a daily basis, despite the fact that the conversion process can take years and necessitates huge changes in the would-be convert's lifestyle and thought processes.

Judaism is certainly not a way of life for the faint-hearted!

So, next time we read the famous stories of Abraham welcoming his three guests, trying to save the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, and taking on G-d, let's just step back and think of the nature of service. Is service simply hard slog, or is it, as some rare individuals understand, doing G-d's duty on earth without any thought of reward?

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.