VAYEIRA EILAV ADONAI B'EILONEI MAMREI V'HU YOSHEIV PETAH-HA'OHEL K'HOM HAYOM
[The Lord appeared to him (Abraham) by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot.
(Genesis 18:1 - NJPS Translation)]
Midrash teaches that Abraham often sat at the entrance to his tent, the better to observe from afar weary travelers in need of hospitality...
In our day it is the rabbi who sits at the entrance to the tent of Jewish community...
These are the opening words of At the Entrance of the Tent: A Rabbinic Guide to Conversion by Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner, published by the Rabbinical Assembly this last January (2011). It is a wonderful work, filled with sensitivity and practical suggestions for rabbis who toil in the holy fields of guiding and accepting Jews by Choice. But that's not what I want to talk about today. I want to focus, instead, on Rabbi Lubliner's choice of a title for the book, which comes from the first line of this week's parshah, as quoted above.
The phrase petah ha'ohel, "the entrance of the tent" occurs-in its various grammatical permutations-60 times in the Hebrew Bible, mostly in the Torah, the Five Books of Moses. The first three times, it is in our story: Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent (Genesis 18:1); Abraham running from the entrance of his tent to greet the three strangers (18:2); and Sarah overhearing from the entrance of the tent the unbelievable announcement that the strangers make to Abraham about her, Sarah, giving birth to a child at this time next year (18:10).
This phrase-petah ha'ohel is more than simply the entrance of a tent: it is the portal, the threshold, the point of contact between two worlds. When applied to a personal house, it marks the border between private and public space; when applied to the sanctuary, it marks the line of demarcation between the sacred and the profane.
When Sarah overhears the annunciation in our parshah, she is using petah ha'ohel as an information portal. She is staying, as befits a woman of her time and culture, within the confines of her tent, in her private domain. And yet, she is at the threshold, and is able to overhear the conversation that is taking place outside the tent, in public.
According to Rashi (the 11th century French rabbi and biblical exegete) and Midrash Aggadah (a medieval exegetical commentary on the Bible), it was the Israelites' scrupulous observance of the sanctity of petah ha'ohel, this private-public threshold, that is responsible for the passage we are supposed to quote every time we enter a synagogue. Balak, king of the Moabites, was afraid of the Israelites who were coming to his territory after having vanquished the Amorites. So he sent for the prophet Bilaam to curse the Israelites. Bilaam, who was constrained to prophesy only in the manner that God directed, was unable to curse the Israelites from either of the first two vantage points to which Balak took him. Finally, at the third spot, Bilaam could see the entire encampment of the Israelites, and he was so impressed that he said, "Ma Tovu Ohalekha, Ya'akov" ("How goodly are thy tents, Jacob..."-Numbers 24:5), the prayer that is to be uttered upon entering the synagogue. Rashi's commentary on the verse, quoting the Midrash, is that what so impressed Bilaam in the camp is that the petah ha'ohel, the entrance to each individual tent, was not facing any other, thus preserving each family's privacy.
We see the same function of petah ha'ohel in the story of Deborah the Prophetess (in chapters 4 and 5 of Judges). Deborah and her general, Barak, lead the forces of the Israelites against the army of Sisera, the general of King Jabin of Canaan. The Israelites are successful, with God's help, and Sisera has to flee the battleground on foot to save his life. He takes refuge in the tent of Yael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was a treaty between the Kenites and King Jabin. Yael invites him in, feeds him, and has him lie down. He tells her to stand in petah ha'ohel(Judges 4:20), the interface of private and public space, to keep, as it were, the outside world out. Unfortunately, he didn't realize that his fate awaited him from within the private domain of Yael's tent, as she kills him in his sleep.
But by far, the most common use of the phrase petah ha'ohel is in regard to the ohel mo'ed, the tent of meeting, which was the locus of the divine indwelling among the Israelites. In Exodus 29, the consecration of Aaron and his sons as priests, and all of the sacrifices attendant thereto, is to take place in front of the entire community at petah ohel mo'ed, precisely because petah ha'ohel is the interface between the divine and the human, between the sacred and the profane. It is at petah ha'ohel that amud he'anan, the pillar of cloud (the manifestation of God's presence), would meet with Moses (Exodus 33:10).
In the Mishkan (the tabernacle), the altar was situated at petah ohel mo'ed, so that perforce, every sacrifice, every offering, was conducted at this threshold; every time the blood of an animal was spilled out at the base of the altar, it was poured out at this portal, this divine-human interchange (see, for example, Leviticus 4:7). Thus, for example, when the Nazir completes his voluntary period of abstinence (from wine, cutting his hair, and exposure to the dead), he brings his sacrifice to petah ha'ohel (Numbers 6:13). The confrontation between Moses and Korah also takes place at petah ohel mo'ed (Numbers 16:18), because it is a rebellion not against Moses, but against the Divine.
Finally, after the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the division of the land among the various tribes and clans is effected by lottery in Shiloh, at petah ohel mo'ed (Joshua 19:51), because it is God's hand that is directing this allocation, and therefore it is done at the threshold of the sacred and profane, the divine and the human.
Our parshah is the very first time that the phrase petah ha'ohel is introduced to us, and it is fitting that it is introduced here. For Abraham and Sarah, the founders of this enterprise called the Jewish People, truly lived at petah ha'ohel. Through the stories about them in the Bible and in Midrash, their personal story, their private lives have become public; their ordinary, humdrum daily existence has become holy. And their efforts to reach out through this portal, through petah ha'ohel, to bring others to the knowledge of the true God, effectively bridged that interface. May we each of us merit to live our lives at petah ha'ohel, at the edge of the sacred, the divine.