Service And Community, In The Desert, Among Strangers

In his covenant with Avimelech, Abraham provides us with an example of how to build peace, justice, and kindness where they seem to be absent.

Commentary on Parashat Vayera, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing?… For I have known him in order that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice.” So says God as God contemplates plans for the city of Sodom and its surroundings, whose reputation for evil and whose shrieks of corruption have become more than God can bear.

God knows that for Abraham and his descendents to become responsible for justice in the world, God must first apprentice Abraham, including him in a monumental decision about justice and human beings. (Abraham, of course, ends up challenging God to save the population of the cities if even ten righteous people can be found in the area.)

Justice & Familial Struggle

Parshat Vayera places this passage in the middle of a flow of events that somehow link the issue of justice in the wider world to Abraham’s own family struggles. As the Torah reading begins, Abraham sprints from the door of his desert tent toward three travelers, who turn out to be divine messengers come to announce the birth of a son to elderly Sarah and Abraham.

As the reading ends, Ishmael and his mother Hagar are driven out, because of Sarah’s jealousy and her urge to secure the inheritance of her own son Isaac. God saves the cast-out boy and his mother. God then tests Abraham, asking him to give up his remaining son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mt. Moriah. Yet again God intercedes and saves the boy.

This interplay between the discussion about Sodom and the struggle for peace and justice in Abraham’s household resist an easy lesson.

Toward the end of this week’s reading is an episode most of us don’t remember. Between the banishment of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac, Abraham is approached by Avimelech, king of the neighboring Philistines. Avimelech proposes a treaty, in recognition of past friendship. After the covenant is made official, the Torah relates that “Abraham planted an eshel-tree in Be’er Sheva, and there he called the name of Adonai, Eternal God. And Abraham lived in the land of the Philistines a long time.”

The peace treaty is jarring–it comes as Abraham’s own family seems to be collapsing, and stands in counterpoint to the doom of Sodom and Gomorrah. The rabbis of the midrash (rabbinic exegetical narrative) try to make sense of the episode, and their point of entry is, of all things, the tree.

In one midrash, two rabbis offer their views on what exactly the eshel was. One says: an orchard. The other says: an inn, a way station for desert travelers. Either way, Abraham marks his new bond with the Philistines by getting involved with them, providing and sharing food. For Abraham, the alliance isn’t just with Avimelech, and it isn’t just an agreement to insure against future conflicts. It has to create a new relationship of hesed, of covenantal kindness, between two peoples, starting now.

Preserving Peace

Maybe Abraham was reflecting on his experience with Sodom. He had argued on their behalf, but from a comfortable distance–looking down into the valley from his home up in the hills. For all his talk of justice, he had done nothing to engage with the evil and corruption right in those cities. Here, Abraham decides to take seriously his own talk about justice, creating community right there in the desert, looking out for vulnerable travelers among the Philistines as well as his own people.

The rabbi who teaches that an eshel is an inn has to justify his creative translation. The three letters of the Hebrew word eshel, he says, each stand for an element of Abraham’s hospitality: aleph for “achilah,” eating; shin for “shtiya,” drinking, and lamed for “l’vaya,” accompanying travelers on their way.

“Then Abraham lived in the land of Philistines a long time.” Not in the cities he had settled in when God first brought him to Canaan, but in the land of the Philistines. Who knows how many strangers Abraham met, what he learned as he shared meals with them, what they taught him as he escorted them toward a safer journey.

If they thanked him, say the rabbis, he would respond: Do you think you have me to thank? Let us thank God together, for it is God’s food we are sharing. And, we might add: It is God who brought me to this land, who separated me from people so that I would have to figure out from the beginning how to order my relationships, how to sustain justice in my own home, which I realize is a place of ayn-shalom, no peace.

What is Abraham’s life, after all, but a twisting story about connection and disconnection? Leaving home, wandering the new land, leaving it in time of famine. Reaching out to travelers, speaking out for ten hypothetical innocents hidden in a culture of evil. In the middle of the desert, Abraham makes a tentative step, staking out a small parcel for peace and devotion to others with no expectations in return. None of them will be announcing miracles to Sarah or good fortune for their descendents. The eshel is a moment of pure service.

It is interesting that in one rabbinic legend, this is the time that Abraham sends messengers to check on Ishmael, and eventually to reunite the family–only for a time, of course, before the terrible challenge from God to offer his other son. But I like to think about that legend, and to imagine Abraham and Sarah with their children at the eshel in Be’er Sheva. Peace in the home, service to others. How to preserve that moment, they do not teach us–Torah forwards that challenge to us.

Reprinted with permission from



Discover More

Balaam the Prophet

The infamous story of the prophet with the talking donkey demonstrates the Bible's awareness that powers of divination were not limited to Israelite seers.