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Vayera 5780 - Hashem, Wait a Sec, I Got Something More Important To Do...

11/19/2019 03:00:44 PM


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

This Shabbat our congregation hosts Reb Shadrach Halevi Mugoya, an inspiring man who is the spiritual leader of the Jewish community of Namutumba, a 400 person community made up of Abayudaya Jews  in Eastern Uganda.

Reb Shadrach was telling me before Shabbat how his village is in need of basic resources to live.  Two years ago there was a famine and as a result people in his village died from the famine.  There is no running water and no electricity.  One of the most glaring needs is for solar stoves.  Since there is no electricity people make fires in their huts in order to cook.  As a result people often burn themselves.  This is often catastrophic as the closest clinic is an hour away by bus and no one in the village has a car.

There are 84 households in the village.  It costs $70 to purchase a solar stove.  If we find 84 families to each commit $70 then we will be able to help this family cook their foods safely every day, and we will have a spiritual share in their Shabbat and holiday meals. To contribute to this project please click here

Our responsibility to help others eat is core to this week’s parasha.

At the beginning of our portion we are told about how Avraham welcomes three visitors into his tent; and then we are told in detail about the food he served. He served cakes (ugot), a young calf--soft and good (ben habakar, rach vatov), butter (chemah), and milk (chalav; 18:6-8).  Why the detail? Why do we need a menu telling us exactly what Avraham served?

By listing this detailed and high end menu the Torah is emphasizing the extent of Avraham’s incredibly generous hospitality to his three visitors.  Avraham and Sarah spared nothing in their desire to perform the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim--to welcome their guests.

This theme of serving food and more broadly of hospitality is one of two major themes in our portion.  The other major theme that jumps out at us is the story of the akeidah—the near sacrifice of Yitzchak, in which Avraham takes Yitzchak up a mountain in order to offer him as a korban to Hashem.

Our portion begins with this scene of the hospitable Avraham and ends with the story of the akeidah.  Is there a relationship between these two very different themes?

If we follow classic rabbinic interpretation of our portion then this theme of hospitality is amplified to an even greater extent.

When the three visitors show up, Avraham is in the middle of a conversation with Hashem.  Avraham says, “al nah taavor me-al avdekha.  The Talmud understands this to mean that Avraham turns to Hashem and asks him to wait while he tends to the guests: “Oh, Gd please do not go away.  I need to tend to my visitors” (18:3).  

In other words, Avraham told Hashem, just hold on a minute, I will get back to you.  Based upon this verse the Talmud teaches, “The welcoming of guests is even greater than having a direct encounter with Gd” (Shabbat, 127a).

That’s a pretty big endorsement of the concept of hospitality.

So too, we see this theme about the importance of hospitality when our portion discusses the destruction of Sodom.  The Torah does not clearly say what Sodom did to be worthy of punishment.  But the Talmud fills in the gap and sees the great sin of Sodom as it being an inhospitable place.

The verse states, “zaakat sedom ve-amorah ki rabbah, the cries of Sodom and Gemora are great” (18:20). The Talmud says that word rabbah should be read ribbah, a reference to a young maiden.  According to the Talmud the city of Sodom was destroyed because there was a young maiden who used to surreptitiously bring bread to people.  She had to hide her deed of bringing bread because it was against the law in Sodom to feed bread to the hungry. In the eyes of Sodom it was a terrible crime!  When the city folk found this out they punished her by covering her in honey and placing her on a rooftop to be eaten by bees.  It was her cries that reached Hashem and caused the city’s fate to be sealed.

There are several other examples of the importance of hospitality in our portion.  Here is but one more instance:

Just before the telling of the akeidah story, the verse states about Avraham, “Vayita eshel be-ver shava, and Avraham planted an Eshel in Beer Sheva” (21:33).  

The Talmud tells us that this Eshel was actually an inn that Avraham established for the purposes of bringing people closer to Hashem.  As visitors would pass through the area, Avraham would invite them into his home and would prepare for them a festive meal.  After wining and dining them, they would politely stand up at the conclusion of the meal to bless their host.  To which Avraham would reply,  “Do not bless me.  Bless the one who created the food—the creator of the Universe” (Sotah, 10b).  In so doing, Avraham used his gracious hospitality for evangelical purposes; the Eshel was the paradigm of hospitality as a gateway to spirituality.

What is the relationship between all this hospitable serving of food and the akeidah narrative?  

The Talmud sees a strong connection between the two stories.  According to the Talmud after Avraham made a meal (yet another example of hospitality!) to celebrate the weaning of Yizchak, Satan came to Gd and said, “Your servant Avraham is making all these festive meals and at none of them is he even bringing a single offering to Hashem.”  To which Hashem responded to Satan, “I assure you that Avraham is not withholding anything from me and he would not even withhold his own son.”  And thus Hashem tested Avraham with the akeidah (Sanhedrin, 89b).  

In this Talmudic understanding, the akeidah is a punishment of Avraham for not properly making sacrifices to Hashem during all the parties he threw.

There is another way to view the relationship between these two major themes--–hospitality and the akeidah.

These two themes really reflect opposite religious impulses: the impulse of hospitality is a spirituality gained through communal involvement.  When we are hospitable we share our spirituality with others.  It is a beautiful thing.  But by definition when we do that our spirituality is often less intense.  It is diluted.  In order to make a communal spirituality our personal spirituality is by definition less important.

The spiritual impulse of the akeidah is the opposite.  It is a personal spirituality.  The akeidah story reinforces the idea that we most sacrifice even the things most dear to us in order to have a relationship with Hashem.  The akeidah thrives on the purity of an individual relationship with Gd.  

These two impulses do not have to contradict with each other, but they often do.

The impulse of hachnasat orchim is the impulse to serve Hashem indirectly; we don’t seek to see Gd’s face as much as we seek to copy Gd’s ways and embrace those in need.  On the other hand, the akeidah represents a desire to only care about our own individual relationship with Hashem.  Avraham was eager and willing to sacrifice everything in his life that he cared about for the sole purpose of serving Gd.

The akeidah demands that there can be no compromises when it comes to our services of Hashem.  Hachnasat Orchim often asks us to compromise our own I-thou relationship with Hashem in order to tend to the welfare of others.

This is the fundamental tension: Do we care about the purity of our own individual spiritual needs or do we look to serve the needs of others?

This tension becomes most relevant when we start thinking about how our faith controls our interactions with others.  Do we favor our own individual religious purity or do we view sharing our spirituality with others as the primary goal? 

The answer of the Talmud is clear: hospitality trumps the akeidah.  Our obligation to serve others supersedes our own I-thou relationship with Hashem.  Of course, both are important and they do not necessarily conflict, but when there is a conflict, we must serve others and put ourselves second.

Think back to that scene of Avraham having an incredible spiritual encounter with Hashem.  Vayeara elav, Hashem appeared to him.  Avraham and Hashem are united in this incredible ecstatic spiritual moment.  What we wouldn’t give to feel the absolute unfiltered embrace of Hashem even for a nanosecond.  And yet, Avraham says to Hashem: “Uh, I will get back to you.  I have to take care of my guests.”

Lest we make the mistake of thinking that this is merely a homiletic teaching of the Talmud and not an actual legal ruling, there is a story from this week’s daf yomi that forcefully makes this point.

As a background to this story lets discuss three different categories of people in the late Second Temple era: Sadducees, Pharisees (also known as Rabbis or Chaverim), and Amei Haaretz.

The Rabbis/Chaverim/Pharisees were the architects of our Talmud and the rabbinic tradition as we know it.  For the purposes of our story it is important to know that the Chaverim were meticulous about matters of ritual purity and impurity.  The same way it is important to a religious Jew today to keep kosher and observe Shabbat, in that manner the Chaverim were careful to not come into contact with any person or item that might transmit ritual impurity.  Ritual impurity could very easily be transmitted—for example, via a liquid or by carrying something. 

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were a community of Kohanim who often disagreed with rabbinic teachings and had their own traditions and interpretations of the Torah. 

The third group of people were known as amei haaretz.  They were mostly a group of people who were not meticulous in their observance of Jewish law, especially as it related to laws of purity and impurity.  As a result the assumption was that amei haaretz were considered to be tamei, or ritually impure.

Now we turn to the story (Niddah, 33b-34a):

One time the Kohen Gadol was talking on the street with a Sadducee.  In the middle of their conversation, some spit exited the Sadducees garments and ended up landing on the Kohen Gadol.  Normally this would make the Kohen Gadol tamei, because this specific Sadducee was believed to be an am haaretz and so therefore his spit would make the Kohen Gadol’s garments tamei.

The Talmud however states that in this case the Kohen Gadol’s garments did not become tamei because of a special, powerful law.  This law is so special and unusual that I believe it has major implications for how we conceptually approach our faith today.  

The Talmud cites the law that since it was a holiday they were able to declare that the amei haaretsz were no longer ritually impure!  In the words of the Talmud, “tumas am haaretz beregel shavinhu rabanan,” which means that on the holiday the rabbis suspended the ritual impurity of the amei haaretz and considered them pure (Niddah, 34a).

This is an astonishing principle.

Why would the rabbis—for whom ritual purity was the bedrock of their faith—suspend the impurity of the amei haaretz?  How could they even do such a thing?

The 19th century Galician rabbi, Dr. Zvi Hirsch Chayes (Maharatz Chayes) explains that it was a rabbinic takkanah allowing the chaverim to ignore the impurity of the amei haaretz over a festival.  The reason is “the Rabbis recognized that there could be no true comradeship if one Jew, due to his different tahara standard, could not break bread with his fellow.  They eliminated this impediment by suspending their decree on amei haaretz” (Niddah, ibid, Artscroll edition, footnote, 27).

The Talmud thus declared that the comradeship on the festivals necessitated a loosening of our own personal adherence to Jewish law and ritual.

This has practical and conceptual implications.

On a practical, halakhic level it is something to keep in mind as we gather with friends and relatives who are often not where we are when it comes to Jewish law.  Is the goal that we must maintain our strict standards to the exclusion of dining with others or can we seek out ways to find leniencies in order to support the value of comradeship?  This has to be decided on a case by case basis, but it is definitely a factor.

On a conceptual level, I will leave you with a jarring inconsistency between this law and current communal practice.  I often hear from organizations that communities should adopt the most “stringent” kosher practices in order to make everyone feel comfortable.  But what if that is backwards: what if on certain occasions we should adopt more lenient (but still kosher) practices in order to make everyone more comfortable?

We live in Washington, DC, a place sometimes accused of being a bubble.  When it comes to our spirituality, we cannot live in a bubble.  Our spirituality must be one that seeks to reach out and connect.  It is vital that we look to have a direct relationship with Hashem, but it is even more vital that we seek to reach out and connect and help others—like, for example, the Jews of Namutumba.

There are two main paths to Hashem—the akeidah and hachnasat orchim.  When they are in tension, the path of Hachnasat Orchim must be our priority.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783