“The “Eshel” (tamarisk) Planted by Abraham and the Different Aspects of Hospitality”
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
In this week’s parashah, parashat Vayera, the Torah tells us that Abraham made a peaceful covenant with the king Abimelech and acquired a well at Beer – Sheba. After that, it is written in the text:
“Abraham” planted a tamarisk (eshel) at Beer-sheba, and invoked there the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.” (Bereshit 21:33)
It is nor clear why Abraham planted this tree there. Maybe he wanted to show his gratitude for acquiring that well.
There is a Midrash that explains the name of the tree “Eshel” saying that the three letters in the word א-ש-ל are an acronym for אכילה- שתיה- לינה that true hospitality involves providing one’s guests with food, drink, and lodging.
The Vilna Gaon interpreted this tree as not only facilitating Abraham’s practice of hospitality but symbolizing a new start for the world, to atone for the failures of Adam, eating the forbidden fruit, Noah, drinking until the point of getting drunk, and Lot for the incestuous relationships with his daughters. Planting the Eshel tree, in some way, Abraham redeemed the world from previous failures, beginning with a new start.
Rashi, quoting the Talmud mentions that Rab and Samuel differed as to what the word “Eshel” meant. One said it was an orchard from which to supply fruit for the guests at their meal. The other said it was an inn for lodging in which were all kinds of fruit (Talmud Masechet Sotah 10a). And we can speak of planting an inn for we find the expression planting used of tents, as it is said, (Daniel 11:45) “And he shall plant the tents of his palace”.
Who was correct? Was it an orchard or an inn? We may follow the two explanations at the same time, considering that they represent two qualities that comprise hospitality. The orchard symbolizes life, growth, nurturance and regeneration. This is the emotional component of hospitality, the provision of sustenance, care, support, and compassion. On the other hand, the inn symbolizes the other important quality of hospitality, a structure, shelter, and protection. Abraham, as the great example of a hospitable person, offered his guests both qualities of hospitality: nourishment provided by the orchard and the sense of security provided by the inn.
In the second part of the verse we are dealing with it says: “and invoked there the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.”
Resh Lakish explains this part of the verse in this way: “Do not read Vayikra and he invoked it, but Vayakri and he caused it to be called.” Infer from this that Abraham caused every traveler to call the name of the Holy One, praised be He! How was this done? After they had eaten and drunk, they would stand up to bless Abraham, whereupon Abraham would say to them: “Have you then eaten from mine? You have eaten from that which belongs to the God of the Universe; therefore, praise and bless Him who spoke and the world came in existence.” (Ein Yaakov (Glick Edition), Sotah 1:29)
Following this explanation, Abraham not only welcomed people providing them sustenance, support, and safety but also taught them the importance to bless and thank God for what they had received.
Let’s follow Abraham’s example of hospitality, providing our guests the emotional, material, and spiritual dimensions of this important action.