The Genesis:3 Project
He said, “My lord, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant.” Genesis 18:3
A few years ago, I engaged in a public conversation with a representative of an organization of Jewish Republicans. I presented a list of values from the legal teachings of the Talmud that are included in daily worship, and I made the claim that these formed the foundation of a progressive agenda for society. Among the values is “welcoming guests,” and it is derived from the moment described by verse above. The list is prefaced by the disclaimer that there are no limits on the practice of these values and that they benefit a person in his or her lifetime and are a moral investment in the future.
I concluded that a welcoming immigration policy was a societal mandate.
My partner in conversation replied with a terrific rejoinder, I thought. “The thing about guests,” he said, “is that they eventually go home.”
Certainly, in the context of this story, the guests who arrive at the tent of Abram (soon to be Abraham) are short-time visitors. They have come to deliver some messages about Abram’s future and the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and then, like the angelic messengers we presume them to be, they “get their wings” and disappear.
We have lots of ways to express the expectation that visitors not overstay their welcome. Ben Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Fish and visitors stink after three days.” Cynics will say, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” And the snarky “don’t let the door hit you in the backside on your way out” is a well-known piece of sarcasm.
But all of these attitudes are expressed as the attitudes of the hosts. Franklin and the anonymous wags are articulating the sense of imposition that visitors create after a certain amount of time. The guests may be inconsiderate or, like refugees, they may have nowhere else to go.
And that’s why Abram’s double use of “please” is important to notice. This quality of hospitality is not the one that says, like Mae West, “why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” It is an expression of invitation that rightly recognizes that Abram (and, by extension, Abram’s progeny – us) considers the guests to be enablers of right and proper conduct. Abram does not suggest that he is doing a favor to the sojourners who arrive at his tent. Instead, he asks them, please, please, to give him the opportunity live up to his better values.
I know that a lot of things have changed in this country since France sent us the gift of the Statue of Liberty over 130 years ago. The French recognized something about American values that Americans themselves occasionally had a hard time living up to. Emma Lazarus reluctantly composed a sonnet that was engraved for the statue, but by the time it was permanently mounted in 1903, the debates over immigrants had ebbed and flowed many times. Yet, Lady Liberty is named, in all capital letters, Mother of Exiles and famously declares a willingness to shine a light for the those tired and poor who bring no resources other than a yearning to breathe free.
It is not a welcome by sufferance. It is a declaration of what, for Americans, is right and proper. “Please, please,” says the representation of our hospitality, “send us those you consider wretched refuse. For us, they family, long-lost and newly-discovered.”
Abram was an immigrant to the land where he pitched his tent. The surrounding stories of his migration tell us he was embraced by some and resisted by others, but in the end, he made the decision that what he most needed would not be denied to others. Please, please make me live up to the promises I made to myself.
Maybe my partner in conversation is correct that the thing about guests is that they eventually go home. But when welcome is a matter of principle and radical in its intention, then when guests arrive they are home.