Vayeira: On Doors and Openings
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
This parsha [i.e. weekly reading] begins with Abraham sitting at the opening of his tent at high-noon (Genesis 18:1). This occurs, presumably, as he recuperates from his circumcision (mentioned in the verses immediately prior to this parsha). What's he doing there? Why isn't he inside? What is the significance of his tent and its opening?
Later on, in this parsha, Abraham's tent is going to be juxtaposed with the tent of his nephew, Lot. But, before we get to that point, witness the words of Rashi. Why was Abraham sitting at the opening of his tent?
Rashi writes that Abraham was sitting there, despite the pain of his recovery, in order "to see whether anyone passed by, [so that he could] invite [them] into the house." Abraham couldn't tear himself away from the entrance to his tent, because he didn't want to miss an opportunity to be there for a stranger in need.
Rashi is presumably drawing from the Midrash which says:
"At the opening of the tent" (Gen. 18:1): You have made a good opening for passers-by. You have made a good opening for strangers. For were it not for you, I would not have created heaven and earth, as it is said (Isa. 40:22), "[He] stretched out [the skies] like a tent to dwell in."
God praises the opening of Abraham's tent, for it this opening that allows him to see, and care for, passers-by. His tent isn't closed to the world. He is eager to bring people in.
Moreover, God's creation of the world is likened, in the book of Isaiah, to His stretching out a tent. Why? In order to let us know that the entire universe was created only so as to make possible the tent that Abraham would one day build. It's not so much that the world is a blueprint for Abraham tent, but that Abraham's tent, and its "good opening" is a blueprint for the world.
The Midrash continues:
Rabbi Abahu said: Abraham's tent was a dissected gateway [i.e., it had an entrance on both sides]. Rabbi Yudan said, it was like one of those double gated passageways [i.e., a room with an entrance on two sides]. He [i.e., Abraham] said, "If I see them wandering in my direction, I will know that they are coming to me" [that is to say: "because I've got two doorways, I won't miss any passers-by"]. As soon as he saw people wandering in his direction, he would immediately run to greet them, from the opening of his tent, and bow to them.
Abraham's tent is open. It's open because Abraham doesn't want to miss an opportunity to help people in need. It's not just open on one side. It's open on two sides. Later on, the Rabbis imagine that Abraham builds an inn with openings on all four sides. They write:
The nations of the world were as if asleep, failing to take shelter beneath the wings of the Divine presence. Who awakened them to come and take shelter? Abraham... How did Abraham do this? He made an inn and opened doors in every direction, in order to receive all those passing by, as it says “He planted a tamarisk (אשל) in Beer Sheva…” (Genesis 21:33). Rabbi Azaria said: what is this [word] "אשל"? It is an acronym for eating (אכילה), drinking (שתייה) and escorting one’s guests (לוייה).
Abraham didn't plant a tree, he built an inn! And, of course, it was open on all four-sides.
Now, if his inn was open on all four sides, then surely his tent shouldn't be open on only two sides! It should be open on all four sides as well! And so we'll find.
The Mishna tells us that our houses should be wide open, so as to welcome in the poor. The medieval commentator, Rabbeinu Yona adds:
[Your house should] be like the house of our father Abraham, peace be upon him, for his house would be on the road in a tight spot so that passers by should come there; and that it should be open on [all] four sides, so that from all sides that they come, they will find an open entrance and they will turn into it.
Our parsha starts with Abraham sitting at the entrance to his tent. The verse makes it seem as if there's just one entrance. The Midrash says that there were two. Rabbeinu Yona built upon these traditions and assumed that there must have been four openings in Abraham's home, since his house wouldn't have been any less virtuous than his inn. Poor old Abraham. His tent keeps on losing walls! Moreover, we're told that this scene has a cosmic significance, since the entire world was created in virtue of Abraham's tent and it opening (or openings).
Not for nothing do the Rabbis make a big deal of Abraham's tent at the beginning of this parsha. The Torah itself draws a contrast between Abraham's tent, and Abraham's hospitality - on the one hand - and Lot, his nephew's tent, and his hospitality on the other. In the context of the Torah's own comparison between these tents, it becomes apparent that there is something to treasure about the design-plan of Abraham's tent. In other words, and as we shall see, the Rabbis are accentuating a theme that's easy to miss, but that's actually deeply rooted in the Biblical text, and in the story of our parsha.
After Abraham offers hospitality to his three guests, two of them proceed on to Sodom. They are on a mission to destroy the city (Genesis 19:1-13):
The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said, “Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.”
Abraham sits at the entrance to his tent. Lot sits at the entrance of the city. But in all other respects, their behavior seems identical. They sit in wait for the opportunity to offer hospitality.
But they said, “No, we will spend the night in the square.” And [yet] he urged them strongly, so they turned his way and entered his house. He prepared a feast for them and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.
Again: so far, so Abrahamic. But the story continues, and it takes a disturbing turn:
They had not yet lain down [for the night], when the townspeople, the people of Sodom, young and old—all the people to the last—gathered about the house. And they shouted to Lot and said to him, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them [i.e. carnally].” So Lot went out to them to the entrance, he shut the door behind himself, and he said, “I beg you, my friends, do not commit such a wrong..."
Sodom is a town that God has already condemned to destruction; a town that has no community of righteous people within it, as God had told Abraham. Abraham's home is different to the home of Lot because Abraham doesn't live in a rough neighborhood. Consequently, Abraham's tent has an opening. Lot's home, by contrast, has an opening and it has a door; Lot can close the opening to his tent by way of his door.
This is the first time that the word 'door' has appeared in the Torah. The Rabbis tend to regard the first appearance of a word in the Torah as presenting a paradigm case. For example, the first time that the word 'love' appears in the Torah is supposed to present us with a paradigm case of love; the first time that 'justice' appears in the Torah is supposed to present us with a paradigm case of justice, and so on. Here, in Sodom, we have the paradigm case of a door.
As if to affirm this Rabbinic notion, the word 'door' echoes throughout this part of the story.
In the space of four verses, the word appears three times: "door" - as Lot shuts himself out of his house; "door" - as the mob attempt to break it down; "door" - as the angels strike the mob with blindness, bringing Lot inside, and shutting the door behind him. As my teacher, Rabbi Shmuel Nacham put it to me: the entire story seems to hinge upon the hinges of that door.
Abraham's house is open. Lot's house is closed. But that isn't Lot's fault. Lot's has to have a door. He lives in Sodom. His door is there to protect him, his family, and his guests
But this defense of Lot collapses as we hear what he says next to the mob:
"Look, I have two daughters who have not known a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you may do to them as you please; but do not do anything to these men, since they have come under the shelter of my roof.”
Lot wants to save his guests, and so he offers his virgin daughters to the would-be rapists outside. It's a horrendous situation, and it's a horrendous offer. It leads us to wonder why this is a person worthy of being saved from Sodom. And it leads us to think again about his door.
You might think it justified to erect a door in order to protect those closest to you from the dangers outside. And, surely, it is. And yet, the first owner of a door in the Bible doesn't seem to care about the people closest to him. What's going on? Did he build this door to protect the people who live inside his home, or did he build the door because he didn't care about the people outside of it?
In fact, if you don't care about the people outside of your home, then perhaps you won't really care about the people inside of it either. You'll only care about yourself.
Lot finds himself in a tight spot. And we see that he's willing to sell out his nearest and dearest in order to save face. These are honorable guests. He calls them "My lords" (Genesis 19:2). As he is their host - the host of nobility - he has a status to protect; and to do so, he's quite willing to hand over his own daughters. Lot doesn't really seem to care for anyone. He cares only about himself and his status.
Abraham was sitting by the entrance to his tent because he was on the look out for guests. At first glance, Lot seems to have adopted a similar practice. But he wasn't sitting outside his tent. He was sitting at the gate of the city. The gate of the city was a prestigious place to sit. It's where the judges and the rulers would sit in ancient times. Was he on the look out for guests, or on the look out for himself? Would he have invited any passer-by home, or only those worthy of being called, 'my lords'? If you look carefully at the verses, you'll see that Abraham saw people. Lot saw that they were angels. Would he have invited them, had he only seen people?
This should lead us to question why his front door was really there: to shut people in, or to shut people out? Since he's willing to eject his nearest and dearest from the safety of his home, we're forced to conclude that Lot's real reason for having a door is primarily to distance himself from "undesirable" others.
The Mishna teaches, in tractate Baba Batra, that a housing association is permitted to compel its residents to pay for the construction of a gatehouse. But the Talmud registers some surprise at this ruling. It tells the story of a pious man whom the prophet Elijah would come down to earth to visit. After this man decided to build a gatehouse on his premises, Elijah stopped visiting. Gatehouses are bad news.
A righteous person, like Abraham, doesn't want a door. To build a door is to sacrifice one's piety. Accordingly, the Talmud wants to know: how can a housing association have the right to force a person to be less pious?
The Talmud offers a number of possible solutions. Perhaps the Mishna is talking about a gatehouse on the inside of a courtyard. This would allow poor people, strangers, and passers-by onto the premises (i.e., into its public courtyard), but not into its private dwelling places. Perhaps, the pious person, by contrast, built a gatehouse on the outside of his courtyard, and thereby left everybody entirely shut out. Perhaps that's how he upset Elijah.
Alternatively, perhaps the Mishna is talking about a gatehouse without a door. So, even if strangers need to pass through a check-point, they could always be heard on the inside. Perhaps the pious person, by contrast, didn't just build a gatehouse, but he put a door in it - and this is what upset Elijah.
Finally, the Talmud suggests: perhaps the Mishna really is talking about a gatehouse with a door, but only a door that can be opened from outside. Perhaps the pious person, by contrast, didn't just build a gatehouse with a door, but his door could only be opened from within. Perhaps this is why Elijah got upset.
We started out with a conflict between (1) a Mishna, which allows us to compel people to build gatehouses, and (2) a story about a pious man whose gatehouse upset Elijah. In a series of attempts at reconciling this conflict, the Talmud first suggests that Elijah (and thus by extension God) doesn't like gatehouses on the perimeter of a property; then it suggests that God's okay with that, but only if there's no door in it; and then it suggests that God's okay with that too, so long as the door can be opened from the outside. By the end, it seems as if you can build a fortress around yourself, so long as there's an easily accessible doorbell!
In other words, sometimes doors are necessary. Sometimes fortresses are too. We have to protect our privacy. We have to protect our loved ones. We have a right to protect our possessions. And so, in a shared accommodation, we can compel our house-mates to contribute to the construction of a door. But a door, it seems, should be viewed as a necessary evil. After all, it was an invention of Sodom.
It's not by chance that the Midrash wants to emphasize and exaggerate the open quality of Abraham's tent. Perhaps the Midrash does so in light of the tacit comparison, made by the Torah itself, between the open tent of Abraham, and Lot's invention of a door.
Of an evening when we don't have guests at home, I tend to feel uncomfortable knowing that we have a spare bedroom whilst people are sleeping rough outside. My wife and I have children to protect. We cannot open our home without caution and due diligence. But perhaps having read this parsha, those of us who have spare rooms and empty sofas at night, should reflect upon the following question: to what extent are we protecting ourselves with our doors, and to what extent are we using them, God forbid, to shut out the sound of those in need? Indeed, if we have no love for the people outside of our homes, perhaps we don't really have any love for anyone but ourselves.