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D’var Torah: Parashat Vayeira

30 Oct

Avraham is traditionally viewed as the paradigm of faith and devotion to God; great consequence is subsequently attached to his attitudes and actions throughout the book of Bereishit. As Vayeira, our parasha this week, opens, Avraham is sitting at the opening of his tent whereupon he identifies three travelers approaching. Avraham famously hurries to greet them, bows low, washes their feet, and arranges food and water for these men. Avraham and Sarah tend to the smallest detail in welcoming their newly arrived guests. Regardless of whether or not Avraham knew the true identity of his visitors, the mode in which he receives these guests remains commendable and provides a model for contemporary hospitality.

Although Bereishit 18:1-8 will remain the most significant example, the mitzva of welcoming guests is so central to Jewish identity that verses alluding to or explicitly mentioning the commandment can be located throughout the Torah. So significant is the commandment itself that the entire Jewish people are commanded in its performance. In other words, hachnasat orchim is not incumbent upon a sub-section of the population; all are responsible for the fulfillment. The gemara in Bava Metzia 86b reveals that the guests appeared to Avraham as practitioners of idol worship, an action for which Jews must die rather than transgress. The questionable religious practices of these men, whom Avraham later recognized as messengers of God, were no obstacle to the performance of this central commandment. A Jewish home must exist then with a perpetually open door, through whose threshold guests of all stripes may step.

Methodologically speaking, performing the mitzva of hachnasat orchim should be relatively simple. The Rabbinic Sages explain however that in order to properly fulfill the mitzvah, it must be fully undertaken. The home should be prepared such that an arriving guest may be comfortable, an appropriate sleeping space shall be designated, whether an office, spare bedroom, or something similar. Unsettling is a guest’s feeling upon his realization that the night will be spent in a public area of the household or on an uncomfortable folding apparatus. The host is obligated in creating a home-like atmosphere for his guests, and in this way the mitzvah itself is fulfilled.

While the centrality of the mitzva and the method of its fulfillment are established, comparisons to other mitzvot must now be drawn so as to achieve more complete understanding. Shabbat 127b provides two beautiful proofs. The gemara states that welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the presence of God, undoubtedly an incredible claim. The gemara then continues and quotes Rebbi Yohanan who equates hospitality with early arrival to the hall of study, Rav Dimi of Neharda says that hospitality is of a higher status. Seemingly there should be no higher level of divine service than accepting the presence of God and/or learning God’s Torah.  Thus the relative importance as measured against other commandments is truly revealed.

I must confess that I am an extraordinarily nervous guest. I wonder where I will sleep, whether or not I will be comfortable, the potential scenarios tumble through my mind. It is through this lens of the nervous guest that the hospitality of Avraham and Sarah takes on especially important personal meaning. I have been fortunate to be invited to stay in the homes of teachers, friends, and strangers. Their tireless endeavors, in the shadow of Avraham, ensured that I felt welcomed and comfortable, efforts that  do not go unnoticed. Personal experiences combined with the exploration of hachnasat orchim itself confirm the theological and mythological significance of Avraham’s hospitality, reinforcing his overarching paradigmatic status.

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A Thought on Tshuva

20 Sep

We currently find ourselves in the middle of the season of repentance, introspection, self-examination, and tshuva (return). Ideally, we are turning inward to inspect who and what we are, what we do, and how we do it. Our quest is for the betterment of self as a means to achieve a closer relationship with God. We delve into the ways we erred, strayed, or deliberately turned away from God and each other. Although tradition teaches that striving for repentance may be undertaken at any point during the year, it also teaches that this a time of special closeness, דרשו ה’ בהמצאו קראהו בהיותו קרוב (Seek God while He can be found, call out to Him when he is near, Isaiah 55:6). Within this עת רצון (time of grace) the opportunities to turn toward God are magnified.

The Song of Songs is traditionally understood as love poetry between God and Israel. The people of Israel and God are likened to a bride and groom as they enter into the marriage canopy at the start of a long and fulfilling relationship.  “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine,” (Song of Songs 6:3) is often invoked as a couple marries. In Hebrew, the first letters of each of those words spell out the word Elul, the Hebrew month that immediately precedes Rosh Hashanah. It appears as if the stage is set for a perfect marriage between God and Israel, what could possibly go wrong? In order for the relationship to work, the love must travel in both directions; each side is required be open to and receptive of the other. The sin of the golden calf is the paradigmatic example of a broken relationship. Entrenched in their desert encampment, the Israelites’ lost faith in both leadership and God results in a significant and serious error, an error that diametrically opposes the love found in Song of Songs, an error that only real tshuva can repair. How are we to undertake such a daunting task?

Our Rabbincal Sages, in their infinite wisdom, provided a comment on the Song of Songs which I have found both explanatory and instructive during these sacred weeks. Responding to the word דפקו (knocked) they write, “My son, open for me one door of tshuva, as small as the head of a needle, and I will open an opening wide enough for wagons and caravans to pass.” In other words, God is knocking upon the doors of our hearts and beseeching us to locate or create at least a small breech through which God may enter. God wants our tshvua, even longs for it, as relayed by the prophet Jeremiah, ‘שובו בנים שובבים נאם-ה (Return! Rebellious children-declares God…Jeremiah 3:14), in a verse that appears frequently in penitential prayers as well as the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. Certainly we would be fools to squander the opportunity to fulfill the rabbinic and prophetic visions.

Yom Kippur is rapidly approaching; the time for immediate and absolute tshuva is drawing to a close as our fates for the year hang in the balance. I have hope. I have hope for the year and for the Jewish People. The realization of that hope is contingent upon the genuine and humble opening of the door, even slightly, to God’s knock. The hope is contingent upon establishment of relationship as loving and open as the imagery of Song of Songs suggests. The hope is contingent upon seizing the opportunity in the season of God’s closeness. The hope is contingent upon serious personal introspection, heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.

heeding the words of our prophets, and ultimately arriving at a more complete tshuva.