Hospitality is a big deal in Jewish law and lore. Abraham is the model of the gracious host. In the midst of a painful recuperation from circumcision, he waited outside of his tent on a hot day to welcome any passing strangers to his home where he provided them with lodging and a sumptuous feast. The Midrash says that he even interrupted his prayer to God to take care of guests. Hospitality to strangers plays a key role in the intense and violent war film Lone Survivor.
In Afghanistan, a four-man cohort of Navy SEALS, consisting of Michael Murphy, Marcus Luttrell, Matthew Axelson, and Danny Dietz, is tasked with capturing or killing a Taliban leader responsible for the deaths of over twenty Marines. The SEALS are inserted into a mountainous region and proceed to their rendezvous point. But there is a problem. They are discovered by an elderly shepherd and two young goat herders.
The men evaluate their options, which include killing the shepherds and thus preserving their mission or releasing them and aborting the mission, knowing it has been compromised. A brief but heated discussion ensues. Luttrell argues to release them: “Under the rules of engagement, we can’t touch them,” to which Axelson responds: “I understand. And I don’t care. I care about you. I care about you. I care about you.” Finally, they decide to release them and abort the mission; but, soon after, Taliban forces ambush them with terrible consequences.
Although the SEALS inflict many casualties, they are outnumbered. Moreover, because of technical problems, they cannot contact their home base to arrange an extraction, making their situation even more desperate. One by one, they succumb to injuries, but Luttrell finds temporary refuge in a local Pashton village. One of the villagers, rejecting the brutality of the Taliban, takes Luttrell into his home and sends a messenger to a nearby American air base to report Luttrell’s location. In the interim, the Taliban arrive preparing to execute Luttrell; but the villagers intervene, preventing them from killing him. What saves Luttrell’s life is the moral code of the local Afghan population, which prides itself on protecting the stranger once he enters their home.
Jewish tradition has much to say about how we should treat the stranger and how we bear responsibility for his safety. The residents of Sodom were the polar opposites of Abraham. Instead of warmly welcoming the stranger, they did everything they could to take advantage of him. The Talmud states that if the guest bed was too short, they would cut off the stranger’s legs. If the bed was too long, they would stretch him so that his body would fit. This evil approach to hospitality led to the destruction of the Sodom.
Another Biblical source relating to our treatment of the stranger is the law of the eglah arufah, the decapitated calf, which was slaughtered when an unidentified corpse was discovered outside the city limits. If that happened, the elders of the city had to convene a meeting to determine whose responsibility it should have been to take care of this stranger. There is an element of communal guilt for permitting someone to go unprotected from the city. Therefore, an atoning ritual was performed on behalf of the closest city to which the body was found. Again, the recurrent theme is to take care of the vulnerable stranger.
Lone Survivor is a riveting movie about a group of courageous soldiers who made a decision to put their lives on the line to preserve morality in a war where the enemy had no such scruples. Thankfully, Marcus Luttrell survived to tell the story, which not only depicts the brutality of war, but portrays the uncommon kindness of people who, despite potential harm, stepped forward to help the defenseless stranger.