A Drash for Vayeira (5767)
The name of this week’s Parsha comes from the very first word — that God appeared to Abraham – but actually three visitors appeared to Abraham. In verse 2 we read “He lifted his eyes and SAW” and that “He SAW and ran toward them”. The commentators agree that the same word “V-yar” appearing twice is to be interpreted that the first “saw” is the physical act of seeing the three visitors and that the second “saw” is the intellectual act of seeing what their appearance means.
The Shalah says that his physical vision told Abraham that the visitors were human beings; his intellectual vision told him that they were angels. Regardless – Abraham behaves the same way: he is hospitable and welcoming to his guests. If they were angels then the meal Abraham prepared for them is an offering to God. If they were men then the meal represented an act of hospitality in keeping with Abraham’s character and that is why Abraham asked them to say grace – to thank God.
Tasmania was used to house transported convicts once Britain lost the American colonies and transportation started in the late 1700s. The Jewish population of Tasmania peaked in the early 1800s at about 450 people – it had a low for about 135 and has, for many years, had a steady level of about 180 Jews, perhaps 2/3 of them in Hobart but many others spread across the island.
For comparison, the population of Tasmania is about the twice the size of Santa Cruz county and the population of Hobart – with its 150 Jews – is the same as that of Santa Cruz county. The area is about 45 times greater. To be Jewish in Tasmania is to barely be noticed.
The synagogue in Hobart is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in Australia – services have been held there since 1845. These days, the synagogue is shared by a group of Orthodox Jews (who rarely get a minyan) who daven every Shabbat and a group of Progressive (Reform) Jews who daven once a month (before the Orthodox, who daven to Baruch She-Amar at home).
The reception that we were given in Hobart would have made Abraham proud of his descendants who live there. We arrived and told people that we were Jewish. That was enough. Everyone – secular to Progressive to Orthodox – made us welcome and showed us hospitality keeping with Abraham’s character. We were not given any litmus test about our practice or beliefs. We were Jewish souls and we were welcome.
Thus, we davenned Shabat Shuvah, Sukkot and the other Shabbatot with the Orthodox and spent Yom Kippur with the Progressive congregation (the Orthodox went to the rarely used Chabad house in Launceston). Susan was in the women’s gallery on Shabbat Shuvah, on the elevated and central Bimah chanting Yona on Yom Kippur afternoon, and lead us in Hallel on Shabbat Sukkot from the gallery.
If Abraham – who spent a lot of time interacting with angels – could not tell if his three visitors were men or were angels, none of us are capable of really looking beyond the exterior. This is attitude that Chabad has – every Jewish soul is welcome, no questions asked.
What we saw in Hobart – and which is taught to us today by the behavior of Abraham in Parsha Vareiya – is that one does not need to be a Chabadnik to behave like one and show great hospitality to every Jewish soul whom one meets. This is a good lesson.