How do we treat the stranger, the alien, the person who comes to us? This is the issue that frames our Torah portion begins this week.
Abraham is resting beneath a shade tree, recovering from his circumcision (at the age of 99) when he sees three strangers approaching. Despite his recent surgery, the heat of day, and his fatigue, he runs to greet them (Genesis 18:2), invites them to join his camp, has Sarah prepare a generous meal, and serves them.
We know that the virtue of hospitality is an essential part of the culture of many nomadic peoples, where, in a harsh environment, water, shelter, and food can be the difference between life and death. In Hebrew this virtue is called hachnasat orchim or welcoming guests; perhaps it comes from our origins as a nomadic people.
But Abraham shows grace and hospitality for another reason; he sees the holiness, the divinity, in his guests. It turns out that they are in fact divine messengers, and for their openness and hospitality, Abraham and Sarah will be rewarded with a son, Isaac.
But in the moment, Abraham knows none of this. All he sees are three travellers and he welcomes them to his tent. In this act, he reveals his true character and his goodness.
So it is with us, as individuals and a nation. How we treat the stranger, the alien, and the one in need reveals our true character. And, as in Abraham’s case, it may hold the key to our future.