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Perashat Vayera

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Perashat Vayera

Friday, November 07, 2014 Author: Rabbi Daniel Greenwald

In this week’s perasha we learn of the great missva of hakhnasat orehim - hospitality – from Abraham Abinu.  The perasha opens with G-d’s revelation to Abraham which is interrupted by the presence of three persons who were in need of hospitality.  Excusing himself from G-d’s presence, Abraham ran with enthusiasm to greet his guests offering them deluxe accomodations and a five-star meal, headed up with pat lehem, bread, the staff of life.  The Midrash explains, that in stark contrast, Lot’s wife, who was heartless like the rest of the inhabitants of Sedom and did not want to offer hospitality to the guests who appeared on her doorstep, went to all her neighbors and asked them, 'Give me melah - salt, as we have guests.' Her intention was that the townspeople should become aware of the presence of these men and drive them from town.  Another version has it that when Lot brought a poor man home for a meal, she would willfully make the food so salty that it was no longer edible.  It was for this very reason that she was punished – measure for measure - by turning into a pillar of salt. (Gen. Rab. 51:5). 

If one pays careful attention, they will see that both bread and salt are spelled with the identical Hebrew letters.  Salt is spelled mem, lamed, het, while, bread is spelled lamed, het, mem. The difference between bread and salt can be explained in the following manner. Bread is universally considered a staple food, and man can subsist on it. Salt, on the other hand, cannot and does not constitute a meal. It is useful only when it is combined with other ingredients, but is useless - even harmful - when eaten by itself.   In addition, lamed when used as a prefix, means "to, toward, or drawing near." Thus, it can be argued that when people eat lehem together, it signifies that they are becoming closer and friendlier with each other. To this day we speak of "breaking bread" with someone, by which a spirit of goodwill and cooperation is promoted and enhanced. The word melah, for salt, represents the very opposite of lehem. It begins with the letter mem, which, at the beginning of a word, implies to draw away or to remove oneself from something or someone. 

Thus, when guests came to the home of Lot seeking lehem and all that it represents--warmth, compassion, friendship, Mrs. Lot, through an over-abundance of melah , treated them with callousness, cruelty and disdain. Even when she managed to escape from Sedom, she expressed no sentiments of grief, experienced no pangs of anguish or feelings of remorse. She turned around and watched her neighbors roasting in the furnace and remained unmoved by the catastrophe. Her punishment came devastatingly and fast. And the sages say that it fitted the crime. Be’melah hat’a u-bemelah lakta. "By salt she sinned and by salt she was smitten" (Rashi Gen. 19: 26). Her sin was self- centeredness and cruelty, and her punishment was that she was forever to remain a pillar of melah.  In contrast, Abraham Abinu, the founder of our people, was the great teacher of the doctrine of lehem. When Boreh Olam appeared before Abraham, the patriarch left the presence of the Divine visitor in order to welcome and feed three unexpected guests. By this deed he taught that Gedolah hakhnasat orehim yoter mekabbalat p’nei ha-shekhinah , that it is more important to take care of human guests than even welcoming G-d. (Sab. 127a)

One Friday evening, the sainted Hafess Hayyim invited several poor guests to his home for the Sabbath meal. It is customary to chant Shalom Aleykhem, a beautiful song of welcome, in honor of the angels of peace who frequent Jewish homes on the eve of the Sabbath. On arriving at his home, the Hafess Hayyim proceeded immediately to recite the kiddush and to eat the meal, and chanted Shalom Aleykhem at the conclusion of the dinner. When asked to explain why he had deviated from the time-hallowed practice of chanting the song of welcome at the beginning of the meal, he said, "I knew that the poor men I had invited were very hungry and were eager to eat, but the angels weren't hungry and I knew that they could wait." The Hafess Hayyim was merely following the example of Abraham Abinu.  He was practicing the ideal of lamed in lehem and shunning the cruel philosophy of mem in the melah of Sedom. I recommend that we do the same.

(Based on a thought of my grandfather a“h) 

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