Parshat Vayeira: Trees of welcome

Parshat Vayeira: Trees of welcome

Needless to say, my mind lately has been very much on trees. It is almost impossible to rid my memory of two Shabbatot ago when the sounds of trees in my neighborhood crackling and moments later falling to their demise on the ground below.

With trees so much on my mind, my curiosity was piqued to the significance of the concluding verses of the twenty-first chapter in Beresheet, where we read that following Abraham’s pact with Abimelech, “Vayita eshel,” Abraham planted an eshel, a tamarisk tree, at Beersheva.

Nogah HaReuveni, z”l, a noted scholar on the natural history of Israel, explains that the tamarisk is an unusual tree in that its shade is cooler than that of other trees. It can withstand heat and long dry spells by sending roots deep down to find underground water. Furthermore, he writes, if water is available during the first growing season, the tamarisk’s roots continue to seek out the damp soil and continue to flourish without additional irrigation, therefore causing many tamarisk trees to grow quite quickly. Midrashim, in fact, say that Abraham did not just plant one tree but a whole grove!

What the text doesn’t tell us is why Abraham plants this tree. Surely there was not a late October snowstorm in the desert! To answer this question, we return to the name of the tree, the eshel, which the Midrash understands to be an acronym for ahilah (eating), sh’tiyah (drinking), and linah (sleeping). This interpretation hints that Abraham’s hospitality we read about at the beginning of this week’s parashah, where he welcomes the three angels of God to his home, was a life-long quality of his – that he “planted” for many future generations.

As we read in Baba Batra 31b, we are “d’talya b’ashlei rav’r’vei,” we rely upon the tamarisk trees that have come before us. Over the week that followed the storm, so many of us, including myself, were welcomed in by friends, neighbors, even people we didn’t even know. Schools, shuls, supermarkets, anyone who could lend a helping hand to his/her neighbor did so because it is “planted” within us as a people to perform the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim (hospitality to guests). In fact, this mitzvah is so important that according to the Talmud (Shabbat 127a), Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav, hospitality to guests is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhina (God’s presence).

As I have driven around Bergen County over the last two weeks, it has been incredibly sad to see so many trees on the sides of driveways waiting to be hauled away. It is my prayer that, much as Abraham planted a tamarisk tree to perpetuate the importance of being a welcoming presence to everyone we meet, we too take the unfortunate circumstance of this storm that inconvenienced many of us for several days and remember the importance of planting a bright future for ourselves and our fellow human being in the performance of the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim.