Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chayei Sarah- The Tenth Test

“Vatamot Sarah bKirbat Arba hi Hevron b’aretz Canaan vayavo Avraham lispod lSarah vlivkotah…  tnu li akhuzat-kever imachem v’ekb’rat meiti milfanai…  Va’ydabeir el Efron b’oznei am haaretz leimor ach im atah lu shmaeini natati kesef hasadeh kakh mimeni v’ekb’rah et meiti shama.” 
“And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her…  ‘Give me possession of a burial site with you so that I may bury my dead from before me’…  And he [Avraham] said to Efron in the hearing of the people saying, ‘If you will hear me, I will give you the value of the field.  Take it from me, and I will bury my dead.’”

Parashat Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah, is not about her life, but about her death.  Actually, it is not even about her death, but about Avraham’s deeds following her death.  It is said that Avraham was given ten tests in his life, testing his faith in God.  There are many lists of these tests.  One of the most interesting tests suggested by the commentaries is the burial of Sarah.  Rabbeinu Yonah (mid-13th century Spain) includes this as the tenth test.  It is interesting because most lists reach their end with the Akeda, the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac.  For most, the willingness of Avraham to offer Isaac to God is the pinnacle of his demonstrations of faith.  However, at least one commentator, Rav Nachman (1772-1810), sees the fact that the tests end with the Akeda as a failure on Avraham’s part to fight for the life of his son as he fought for the strangers in S’dom v’Amorah.  Rav Nachman stressed that a tzaddik is not merely born a tzaddik, but must always strive to be righteous.  The failure of the test is a fall from the connection with God.  This fall should cause the person to strive ever harder to become closer to God.

Rabbeinu Yonah puts the burial of Sarah as the tenth test.  It’s not enough to be willing to do things for God through mitzvot bein adam l’Makom, the mitzvot between humans and God.  To be fully connected to the Divine, we must also understand and respect the connections among people, and fulfill the mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro, mitzvot between people.  That Avraham was moved to secure a proper burial site and fulfill the mitzvot of burial amidst his mourning is significant.  He could have buried Sarah anywhere, taking the easy way out, but instead he went to the effort, even during his mourning, to secure a proper site that would endure.  

That Jews physically bury our own, not leaving it to hired workers, sets us apart from other groups.  It is one of the greatest mitzvot we can do since it is a favour that can never be returned.  That this could be the pinnacle, not of devotion to God, but to another person is a noteworthy statement.  In the end to be a tzaddik is not about Heaven or Olam Habah, the World to Come, but about the here-and-now.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Parashat Vayera- Do What I Do

Vayera eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre, v’hu yosheiv petach haohel k’chom hayom.  And Hashem appeared to him (Avraham) by the trees of Mamre, and he sat in his tent opening during the heat of the day.
This is the opening verse to parashat Vayera.  On the surface it seems simple that Avraham would be sitting in his tent during the heat of the day, but generations of rabbinic commentary teach us that it is anything but.  First, God appears to Avraham.  God does not speak to Avraham; God simply appears, then is gone by the time we reach the second verse of the parasha. In the last verse of Lech Lecha, Avraham and all the males of his household were circumcised.   Immediately following is God’s appearance. The Rabbis connect these together; declaring that God is performing the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick.  From these few words, Vayera eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre, And Hashem appeared to him by the trees of Mamre, we learn of our obligation to fulfill this mitzvah.  Further, God does not speak to Avraham, nor overstay the visit.  From this we learn to sit and just be with the person we visit, not an easy task.  It is companionable time, not time to fill with idle talk, which may have the added problem of causing the ill person to feel s/he has to respond.  God is also gone by the next verse, teaching us not to overstay our welcome.
But the verse doesn’t end its teachings there. The second half of the verse reads, “v’hu yosheiv petach haohel k’chom hayom, and he sat in his tent opening during the heat of the day.”  Avraham and Sarah are known in our tradition to be the ultimate hosts.  Even in his weakened condition, Avaraham is sitting in the tent opening watching for the opportunity to do hachnast orechim, to give welcome to guests. 
There’s almost too much to write on this subject.  Here are the rules of hachnasat orechim we learn from Avraham.
  •        Avraham is sitting in the opening of his tent available and welcoming.  Tradition teaches that their tent was open on all sides so no guest could go by uninvited. (18:1)
  •        Doesn’t wait for the guests to come to him.  He runs to greet them and bring them to his home. (18:2)
  •        He is deferential- bows to them, “I am your servant.” (18:3)
  •        Makes them comfortable and sees to their needs- offers water to wash their feet in the heat of the day (18:4)
  •        Feeds them- first a light snack, then a meal(s) with choice ingredients (18:5-8)

Hospitality is a big deal in desert cultures, where it can mean the difference between life and death.  Still today, although Jews have spread throughout the world, adapting to new cultures and climates, hospitality is considered one of the greatest mitzvot.  So ingrained is this that the first lesson I learned at JTS was “If you feed them, they will come.”  The importance of this mitzvah in Jewish life can be seen in the following:
  •        The statement at Pesach, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.”
  •        The over-flowing food at a shiva home, both caring for the mourners, but also providing hospitality to those who come to visit.
  •        Most Jewish meetings have some nosh, and we like to share.  I was once sent home from a meeting at UJA with a doggie bag.
  •        You actually cannot crash a simcha with a seudat mitzvah.  All of JTS attended Jesse’s bris, inc. the high school on the grounds.) (now that b’nei mitzvah, and most s’machat are by invite, many have the custom of giving a portion to Mazon)
  •        And finally, there is a custom that there must be food on the table for birkat hamazon, “V’achalta, v’savata, u’v’rachta;  you will eat, be satisfied, and bless.” If there aren’t leftovers you didn’t make enough. 

Parashat Lech Lecha- Our Teachers Make our Souls

“Vayikach Avram et Sari ishto v’et Lot ben achiv v’et kol r’chusham asher rachashu v’et hanefesh asher asu b’Haran…”  “And Avram took Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot and all the belongings that they gathered and all the souls they made in Haran…”  (B’reishit 7:5)

Parashat Lech Lecha begins with God commanding Avram to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house to go to a land that God will show him.  For this God promises great blessings.  Without a question Avram leaves with Sarai, Lot, and “all the souls they made in Haran.”  The p’shat of this most likely refers to the servants and slaves that were part of Avram’s and Sarai’s household along with any other dependents who left with them. 

Commentary on this verse focuses upon “hanefesh asher asu…  the souls they made…”  What does it mean to make a soul?  The Rabbis teach that these are the converts whom Avram and Sarai gathered and taught.  Later in the Torah our laws are incumbent upon all who reside within the Israelite camp, whether Israelites, slaves and servants, or strangers residing with us.  All these are followers of God.  In fact, we are expected to teach any strangers who are part of our community so they can join the community fully.

“All the souls they made…” also gives us a sense of obligation.  As teachers Avram and Sari were responsible for these people, and these individuals obligated to Avram and Sarai.  Interestingly, our tradition teaches that we are obligated to say Kaddish for parents, siblings, children, and spouses, but we also say Kaddish for our teachers.  This is based upon parashat B’midbar, “Eileh toldot Aharon u’Moshe;” “these are the generations of Aaron and Moshe.”  The rest if the verse only mentions the sons of Aaron.  Rashi teaches, based on Talmud Sanhedrin, that this is because whoever teaches Torah to another, our tradition regards that person as a parent to the student.

In the summer of 1996, while pregnant with Jesse, Bob Brown, aka Moshe, was the program director at Ramah Poconos.  He was ill, and camp had rented a golf cart for him to get around.  Bob, a teacher of mine for many years prior to our time at Ramah, decided it was his job to drive me around camp.  Bob said to me, “As your teacher I am your parent.  I need to take care of this grandchild.”  Five years later, we named Keren after Bob, but that’s another story.