Reflections on Parashat Vayera
“Be our guest! Be our guest! Put our service to the test. Tie your napkin ’round your neck, Cherie, And we’ll provide the rest. Soup du jour, Hot hors d’oeuvres, Why, we only live to serve. Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious! Don’t believe me? Ask the dishes! And a dinner here is never second best! Go on, unfold your menu, Take a glance and then you’ll be our guest, Oui, our guest, Be our guest!”
When you hear these words, do you imagine them being sung by an animated candlestick? Or by an even more animated twelve-year-old camper singing in Hebrew at the top of his or her lungs? In fact these words, made famous by Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, were originally sung by our great patriarch, Abraham, in this week’s Parashah, Vayera!
Parashat Vayera is one of the most storied in the entire Torah: It begins with Abraham welcoming three guests into his home, one of whom predicts that Sarah will bear a son. This is followed by Abraham pleading with God on behalf of the people of Sodom, God destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, the banishing of Ishmael, the binding of Isaac, and so much more. I could read these stories again and again and continue to find new meaning and new insight in them, but it is the first story, of Abraham’s Hachnasat orchim (welcoming of guests), that struck me on this read.
The parashah opens up with Abraham sitting “at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day” (Gen. 18:1). Rashi explains that he is standing at the entrance in order to see if there were any passersby so that he could bring them into his house. At that very moment, three men appear before him, and Abraham rushes out to greet them. I picture this moment and my mind takes me back to the first day of camp each summer, with counselors waiting out in the heat of the day in their matching staff t-shirts, hoping beyond hope that new campers will arrive so that they can rush out to greet them.
For the past three summers I have had the pleasure of working as a rosh eidah for our youngest campers. We welcome over a hundred new campers each year into our home, asking them to join us and hoping to provide them with the most meaningful and memorable experience. Welcoming 4th, 5th, and 6th graders into camp and helping to give them their first taste of what Ramah is all about is an experience so full of joy and excitement that many of our staff members have come back summer after summer specifically to work with young campers again and again.
It is a unique opportunity to do something very special. As Abraham runs out to his guests, he begs them to come into his home so that he may feed them and so that they may “nourish their hearts”. The words used there are v’sa’adu libchem, from the Hebrew word Seudah, “meal”. When we welcome campers to Camp Ramah, we’re not simply taking them in to care for them and feed them for the summer. The goal is to nourish and feed their hearts, souls, and minds. To provide them with a Jewish experience that will fill them up so satisfyingly that they can taste it throughout the year and hope to come back year after year to try it again.
This Shabbat, all over the world, Ramahniks are welcoming other Ramahniks into their homes for “Shabbat Across Ramah”. Guests that have never met their hosts are coming together over their shared love of Ramah. It’s the perfect Shabbat for Hachnasat Orchim, and I hope you can taste the nourishment of a Ramah summer in your homes, and hear the echoes of a chorus of young voices on our stage in the Beit Am shouting (in Hebrew) “Be Our Guest, Be Our Guest, Be Our Guest!”