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.

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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.


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Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett

Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett is the founder and director of MACHAR, a national project in the United States involving Jewish youth in service that promotes self-sufficiency and economic empowerment and in study of Jewish and American "texts" on wealth, success, and social responsibility.