Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Gateway to Heaven

Not long ago, I googled the question ‘What is prayer?’ I got some lovely answers. ‘The act of communicating with a deity,’ said one source. Another source said that ‘prayer is the practice of the presence of God.’ Lovely! Another Catholic source said that prayer is ‘…a form of … talking to God or to the saints.” What struck me as most interesting about googling prayer was that it wasn’t until the fourth page of google entries that I came to a Jewish definition of prayer. I saw lots of Christian definitions, lots of New Age definitions, Muslim definitions, Sikh definitions. Finally, I came a Jewish definition that simply referred to prayer as ‘a pouring out of the heart.’ A nice definition! A good start. We can all sense, in all religions, that prayer is some form of communication between the heart and the Divine. We all can sense that prayer is deeply personal. But what exactly makes prayer Jewish prayer? So many of us come to synagogue wondering about Jewish prayer. We open our siddur. Ancient and complex prayers are there. Words of prayer to an exalted God mixed with humble supplication on behalf of the people of Israel abound. We can all intuit that this can be a rich spiritual experience, but most of us fail to find the pouring out of the heart, the sense that we are communicating with a Divinity that we can believe in. So today I would like to begin by acknowledging that Jewish prayer is harder to define than prayer in other traditions. Jewish prayer is an outpouring of the heart, and it is communication with the Divine, but it is also more than that. Jewish prayer is T’filah, which comes from the Hebrew root ‘palal,’ which means to judge or to stand Present for someone or something, or even more, to stand in awe of someone or something. ‘To pray’ in Hebrew is Lehitpalel, a reflexive verb that means to stand in awe, or in the Presence of Yourself.

In this week’s parashah, Jacob runs away from home, fearing for his life after he has stolen the blessing of the firstborn from his brother Esau. Alone and afraid in the dark night, he goes to sleep with nothing but a stone beneath his head for a pillow. And he has a dream: a ladder extends from the Earth to the Heavens “V’hinei malachei Elohim olim v’yordim bo,” and behold, angels of God rising up and descending on the ladder (Gen. 28:12). And the Voice of God speaks to him from this vision, and reassures him that no matter where he goes, God will be with him, and he will return to the Land of Israel and his descendants will be blessed. And Jacob awakens from this dream and says “Achen yesh Adonai bamakom hazeh, v’anochi lo yadati,” “Surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it!” (Gen. 28:16) It’s an extraordinary moment in the Torah. His vision is all about how HaMakom HaZeh, this place: the Land of Israel, this spot—a spot that would one day be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem—was the “sha’ar haShamayim,” the gateway to heaven where heaven and earth are linked. As the future father of the twelve tribes of Israel, it is fitting for him to be the living link to the Land of Israel, to the holiest spot in the Land for all future generations of his offspring.

The Midrash sees another dimension to this amazing vision: In the Hebrew, it says that the angels were olim v’yordim bo, rising up and descending—the Hebrew “bo” literally means, “on him.” “R. Hiyya the Elder and R. Yannai disagreed: One maintained: [The angels] were ascending and descending the ladder; while the other said: they were ascending and descending on him--on Jacob! The first view is clear. But that they were ascending and descending on Jacob must mean that some were exalting him and others chiding him, dancing, leaping, and maligning him. … it is you [said the angels] whose features are engraved on high; they ascended on high and saw his features and they descended bellow and found him sleeping. This can be compared to a king [whose image] was found sitting in his council chamber in judgment, while at the same time he lay asleep in the corridor.” (Breshit Rabbah 68:18)

It’s a strange and cryptic midrash! Don’t think of a heavenly ladder, says R. Yannai. Think of the angels going up and down Jacob’s body! And they’re not gliding angelically. They’re jumping on him, kicking him yelling ‘Wake up!’ ‘Wake up!’ Up in heaven, says the midrash, the angels can see an image of Jacob’s face as the very image of humankind perfected. And here he is on earth, sleeping like a shzlub! What’s your problem, Jacob? Wake up already! This midrash hints a meaning of great depth for us that unlocks the secret of Jewish prayer, of T’filah, itself. There is a lofty, perfect Jacob in heaven, but there is also a very human and fallible Jacob here on earth. And in this dream, in this image, both natures, the lofty and the humble, exist together in the same moment…

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan teaches us the following statement: “Wherever you find the strength of the Holy One, praised be God, you find his Humility…This is written in the Torah: ‘For the Lord your God is Elohei Ha’Elohim, Va’Adonai Ha’Adonim, ‘is God supreme and Lord supreme, ‘HaEl HaGadol v’hagibor v’hanora, ‘the great, the mighty and the awesome God!’, but says right after that, ‘Oseh mishpat y’tom v’almanah,’ (Deut. 10:17-18)but [God also] upholds the cause of the orphan and the widow.” (B. Talmud Megila 31a) Here, too, just like in Jacob’s ladder dream, there is the realm of the heavenly heights, and the realm of the lowly and humble here on Earth. In Jacob’s dream, it is Jacob himself, according to the Midrash, who is both exalted in heaven and humble here on earth. Here in the Talmud, God, too is both exalted in heaven, and with the humble and powerless on earth.

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, once taught that if we want to understand the greatness of God, we must understand that everything of this earth is like a mirror image of the Divine. He taught that God’s greatness and majesty IS God’s humility: they’re not separate. Where do we first meet God in the Torah? The book of Genesis says ‘V’Ruach Elohim m’rachefet al pnei hamayim,” the spirit of God hovered on the surface of the waters (Gen. 1:2). Just as the water always seeks the lowest place, so too does God. Find the lowest, simplest place, and you will find the True majesty of God!

Again and again, our tradition reminds us that the highest heights and the lowest lows bear a connection that we ourselves must bridge if we are to awaken to our highest humanity and the highest Divinity itself! Another Midrash: When Jacob wakes up from his dream, the Hebrew reads: “Vayikatz Ya’akov mishnato,” “And Jacob awoke from his sleep.” (Gen. 28:16). The Midrash playfully suggests another reading. Read it like this: “Vayikatz Ya’akov MiMishnato,” And Jacob awoke from his Mishnah!” The word ‘Mishnah,’ of course refers to the legal teachings of the Torah. So the midrash suggests that Yaakov awoke not from sleep, but from his study. The Chasidic commentary the Ma’or VaShemesh explains the meaning of this Midrash: that, of course, Torah-study is critically important for any Jew, but if we move ONLY to the lofty realm of the intellectual, the abstract, and we abandon the deeper yearnings of the heart, then we are not fully whole.

So now let’s put it all together: those angels came down and kicked and jumped on Jacob and said ‘Wake up!’ ‘Wake up!’ not just from sleep. Wake up to the fullness of your condition, Jacob! Wake up to the fact that your very countenance is up there in heaven, next to the very throne of God, Jacob! But it wasn’t just that. The angels were olim v’yordim, they were going up and down on Jacob’s body: from the intellect down to the heart (and below!) and up again, back and forth! Wake up, Jacob, from the lofty realm of pure mind and reason and intellect. Wake up to the outcry of your heart! Wake up to the deepest, lowest, and most humble recesses of your soul down on earth too, Jacob! Wake up to all of it! This is prayer!

T’filah, Jewish prayer is Lehitpalel: to Wake up, to wonder at yourSelf! To pray is to be the angels olim v’yordim, going up and down, and wondering at the fact that our very countenance, our very face is up there in Heaven with God, and yet we are down here, so very limited, so very afraid and alone and fallible here on earth. We are, at once, in both places in the very same instant! And Jacob woke up and said, ‘Achen Yesh Adonai baMakom Hazeh, v’Anochi Lo Yadati,” “Surely God is in this place, and I didn’t know it,” I didn’t know that God was here, in THIS place too! God isn’t just in the heavens above, far above and beyond me. God is with me, down here, in the dark night, alone and afraid and huddling to sleep at night! God is here, in my mind, my intellect, my highest thoughts of prayer, yes. But God is also down here, baMakom hazeh, in this place, down here in the most vulnerable places in my heart. God trembles in core of my being together with me as I fear the unknown. God is down with me in my basest yearning and desires, in my rage and in my hopes and my strength and my love. God is with my highest and most noble achievements, and down low with me in my most desperate moments of failure.

So it is that in T’filah, we express our willingness to go up and down , to give Voice to each and every part of our Being, ourselves, before the Ultimate. And it is for this reason that our T’filot are so manifold and complex and textured and varied. We utter the words of the Sh’ma, and we are in the loftiest place of Awareness of the Divine, high up, with our countenance in heaven as we say those words. But then, we begin a descent into our humanity. As we say the Hashkiveinu at night, we feel, like Jacob before us, alone and afraid in the dark night, and we give voice to our yearnings to be safe and protected. In the ‘Amidah, we descend even further into our yearnings and our pain: we scream out in anger against the Malshinim, the heretics and others who speak against our people, and we don’t hold back our basest anger and rage. But then, we rise up again, to the heights of joy and gratitude for the ‘nisecha shebechol yom imanu,’ for the miracles that somehow are always around us in every moment of life, sustaining us. And even after such heights, we descend to the very precipice of despair again, as we call out ‘Shomer Yisrael,’ to the Guardian of Israel to please sustain what remnant of our people is left in this world of so much loss and devastation.

Every rung of that ladder arrays itself before us in T’filah. We’re not just ‘talking to God.’ We are awakening each level of our heart and our soul. We’re not denying any part of ourselves a chance to speak and to sing out to the Ultimate, and before our own Awareness. We’re journeying up and down the ladder to Heaven, and discovering ‘Achen Yesh Adonai Bamakom Hazeh,” that there isn’t any place in the world, any dark corner of our very being, where we cannot stand in wonder of the Truth that God is in this place, in our hearts, and we never even knew it! May we all find our way into T’filah, and in so doing, may each of us be the Sha’ar HaShamayim, the very gateway to Heaven itself.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Eternity in Disguise

We have a very strange relationship to time in our society. I once read somewhere that we use exactly the same language and metaphors to refer to time as we do to money: we save time, we waste time. We spend time, we invest time. Time is precious and must be put to good use and not squandered. It’s very interesting! Money is so concrete. Yes, there are many abstract elements in our monetary system, but by comparison, money is something based on resources in the physical world. It’s something that you could, at least theoretically, hold in your hand. Time, of course, has nothing concrete about it—but we assign it concrete status, as if the watch on your wrist actually tells you how much time you “have.” But is time, like money, something that we ever actually have at all? Strangely, the more you think about it, you realize that the answer is ‘no:’ There’s nothing material about time at all. It’s never, in fact, a commodity in our lives. And yet we all very unconsciously assume that time is ‘something’ that we can’t get through our day without. We all can sense time. We all can feel time passing—Lord knows, when we’re running late for a critical meeting or a major family event, the passage of time is agonizingly real and painful. So today I would like us to explore together this strange aspect of life known as ‘time,’ and how we as Jews, are called upon to relate to it.

In this week’s Torah reading, the life of the great matriarch, Sarah Imenu, Sarah—the wife of Abraham, the mother of the Jewish people--comes to an end. Sarah, we are told, lived to a ripe old age, 127 years old, to be exact. But the Torah expresses her age in a very unusual way. The text says, “Vayehiyu chayey Sarah me’ah shanah, v’esrim shanah, v’sheva shanim, shnei chayey Sarah,” And Sarah lived one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years, the years of the life of Sarah. Why, our ancient sages asked, did the Torah refer to her years so strangely—all lengthened out like that? Why didn’t the Torah simply say that she lived to be 127 years old? The answer that our sages give us was that the Torah had to write out her age like that in order to express the fact that Sarah didn’t just live to an old age, she lived well until an old age. Rashi, the great medieval commentator says, “kulam shavim Latovah,” all her years were equal in goodness. She lived her life fully, magnificently, beautifully every year, every day, every moment of her life. In this way, she merited being the great matriarch of the Jewish people. If anyone didn’t ‘waste’ her life, it was Sarah! In enumerating her years, the Torah gives us a eulogy expressed simply by referring to the years of a human being’s life, and in this way—in defying the normal way we think about the years of a life-- the Torah is a powerful teacher to us all about how we must think about the time we have here on earth.

There’s an old story told by Reb Chanoch Henich of Alexander. There was once a fellow who was so very forgetful. Indeed, his memory was so short that when he awoke each morning, he could not remember where he had laid his clothes the night before. Things got so bad for him that he could not fall asleep, so great was his nervousness about finding his things upon waking. One evening, however, he hit on a great idea. Taking a pencil and paper, he wrote down exactly where he had placed each item of clothing. Placing his notes on the nightstand, by his bed, he quickly feel asleep, confident that he would find everything just perfectly in the morning.

And indeed he did. He woke up, took the notes form this nightstand, and read off each item in turn: pants—on chair back; and there they were. He put them on. ‘Shirt—on bed post; and there it was. He put it on. Hat—on desk; and there it sat. He placed it on his head. In a few minutes the fellow was completely dressed. But suddenly a great dread came upon him.

‘Yes, yes,’ he said aloud. ‘Here are my pants, my shirt, and my cap; but where am I?’ He looked and looked and looked, but he could find himself nowhere! Reb Chanoch Henich paused for a moment and then concluded ‘And that is how it is with each of us as well.”[1]

What is this story getting at? Think about it: where am I? Where are you, indeed? I’m standing here! And you’re sitting in this chair, of course! It’s obvious, isn’t it? Or is it really that obvious? At some point, especially if I keep droning on, you may look at your watch and say ‘What time is it? When does this end, anyway? I wonder what there will be to eat when this is over?’ If you can catch yourself at that very moment, then where are you? Are you really still here? Or have you actually gotten lost in time? I don’t mean time-travelling, I mean: have you suddenly looked at your watch and mentally left this moment in favor of some other, future moment? Similarly, you could be sitting here listening to me, and suddenly you remember that you forgot to return an important email from yesterday, or you remember a fight you had with a family member last week, and you’re feeling bad about it. Again, are you really here, or are you now lost in the past? In either case, have you actually left the chair? Physically, of course not. But in every other sense—you have left this place. You’re gone. You’re missing this moment, the only moment that’s really happening!

The Sfat Emet, a wonderful commentary from the last century, derives a very powerful teaching from the opening line from this week’s Torah reading about Sarah’s years. According to the Sfat Emet, there’s an important mitzvah about time that we all are commanded to follow. In the first paragraph of the Shema, from the book of Deuteronomy (6:5), there are the words ‘v’hayu had’varim ha’eleh asher anochi metzavcha hayom al levavecha,” What does that mean literally? ‘These are the words that I command you this day upon your heart.’ The Sfat Emet suggests another way of reading this line: he says the point of the line is the phrase: asher anochi metzavcha Hayom: What I, God, command you this day. Stop there, says the Sfat Emet, and the power of all these words, of all the Torah becomes clear: What God commands upon us is ‘HaYom,’ Today! In other words, what God on high commands us to do is to be Present to what’s happening HaYom, today! That Hebrew word, HaYom, doesn’t just mean a 24 hour period the way we conventionally think of a day. HaYom means ‘right now.’ For the Sfat Emet, the one commandment that makes our True adherence to Torah possible is our adherence to HaYom, to just being Here, right now!

When that forgetful man in our story can’t find himself, it’s not that he can’t find himself in space. He can’t find himself ‘in time.’ And when it’s all said and done, each of us—you and I—we’re all that forgetful man! We can never find ourselves in time! And in our modern world, of atomic clocks and precision Swiss-timing watches, paradoxically, we’re more lost in time than ever. What time is it right now? Look at your watch. What exactly does that mean? It’s just a concept. And it’s a very stressful concept because those seconds keep ticking away. We’re always afraid of running out of time, just as we fear running out of money. But time is NOT money. Our time on earth may indeed by limited, but time actually doesn’t run out. Ever! Haven’t you noticed? There is always Now, and then Now, and then Now. As the Book of Ecclesiastes says, Lakol Zman v’et l’chol chefetz,tachat hashamayim: et laledet v’et lamut, et lata’at, v’et la’akor natua…” For every time and for everything under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant, and a time to uproot the planted.”

The great paradox at the heart of the Jewish relationship to time is that we’re really making the best of our time in this life when we question the solidity of the concept of time itself! This doesn’t mean that we’ll be forevermore late to everything, or that we’ll never again get anything done. Somehow, miraculously, when we question that solidity of time itself, things manage to get done even better than before, because we’re not stressed about time anymore. This is the essential meaning of Shabbat itself. While, all other six days of the week, we’re constantly checking our watches and mentally living in the past or in the future, Shabbat is an opportunity to put away your watch and live with no time at all. Shabbat is all about basking in the eternity that flashes in this moment. And somehow, our people have managed to survive for thousands of years even without worrying about the time for one day a week. So today, you can put away your watch. What time is it? It’s just Shabbat. Just for now, there is no past and no future. Just this! Imagine if you could live your life with that kind of freedom! How liberating that would be! This is the promise of Shabbat! Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said it best in his book, The Sabbath: “What is so luminous about a day? What is so precious to captivate the heart? It is because the seventh day is a mine where spirit’s precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time…There is no quality that space has with the essence of God…the likeness of God can be found in time, which is eternity in disguise.” [2]

When we look at our watches and become stressed because we’re late, or we feel guilt because of time we have wasted—the reason why we are really feeling that pain in our souls is because at that moment, we’re in the disguise, and not in the Reality of this moment. When we lose ourselves in projected pasts or futures, we have abandoned our True Selves. We have left Eternity. We have left God! The Kotzker Rebbe once famously asked, “Where is God? Wherever you let Him in!” If we’re never Here, Now, then we can never find God!

So this is the real reason why the Torah lengthens out the years of Sarah’s life. She, together with Abraham, was a great teacher of Torah because her days, her moments, were full. She lived a life endeavoring to let God in by allowing the Present Moment to be. Perhaps it’s this quality of being Present that distinguishes all the great figures of the Bible. When God calls to Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Moses—what is their response? Hineini! The Hebrew word Hineini means: Here I am! They were NOT lost like the forgetful man in our story. When they say Hineini, they’re not telling God where they are in space. God certainly knows that! What God really means when God calls to them is: Are you Here, Now? Our Patriarachs and Matriarchs indeed were able to say yes, Hineini. And it wasn’t JUST on Shabbat. They were ready and able to say Hineini: I am Here, Now, all the moments of their lives. Sarah was able to do it one hundred years, and twenty years, and seven years. We may not be able to quite be that Present yet in our lives, but this Shabbat of honoring the life of Sarah Imenu, may we indeed learn from her example. May we embrace the practice of Shabbat, and of discovering moments of seeing through the disguise of eternity, and just bask in the glow of that eternity in this very moment. May we indeed always be able to say Hineini in that eternity, and once there, may we find peace and the Presence of God.

[1] Hasidic Tales, Translated by Rabbi Rami Shapiro, 2004. P. 191

[2] The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, p. 16

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Face of God in the Face of the Stranger

The name Avraham means ‘exalted father of many nations.’ Avraham lives and acts in the primordial history of our people, and all the peoples of the world. His life IS Torah. His actions serve as the template upon which later commentaries and code books would canonize sacred law and righteous behavior for all generations to come. Watch him closely, emulate his every act, and you too will be a tzadik, a righteous human being. Just look at him in parashat Vayera. He has just circumcised himself, showing his commitment to God, and is recovering, in pain, in the heat of the day. Looking up, he sees three strangers approaching in the distance. Without skipping a beat, he leaps up—and even the text of the Torah is filled with quick action-verbs: he runs from the entrance of the tent. He bows. He hastens to the tent to summon Sarah. He runs to the herd to get a calf to be served, and then he waits on his guests. He is all flurry and action for the sake of total strangers. Watch him! Notice his total alacrity and eagerness to welcome guests. Here, he teaches us the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, of welcoming guests. Avraham is a virtuouso, a master of gemilut Chasadim, of acts of lovingkindness. If you want to know just how good he is, compare him to his nephew, Lot.

Jump ahead just alittle bit in the pararshah: the strangers (who are, in fact, angels of God about to destroy Sodom and Gemorrah) head out to those evil cities, where they are greeted by Lot, who lives there. At first, it would seem that Lot had learned well from uncle Avraham: he bows low, he welcomes the strangers, begs them to come into his home for hospitality . But, there’s the little problem that this is Sodom and Gemorrah: the local residence come pounding on the door, demanding to have their evil way with the guests. Lot, ever the well-meaning host (?...), begs them not to attack his honored guests, so what does he do? He offers them his virgin daughters instead so that the residents can have their way with the daughters instead of the guests! There are two words we can say in response to this story: Oy gevalt! What happened? Lot seemed to be doing so well! He seemed to be similarly mastering the art of Gemilut Chasadim, of lovingkindness and welcoming strangers. So how did he fall down so profoundly in his human dignity?

The answer, of course, was that Lot himself was corrupted by Soddom and Gemorrah. And it all goes to show you how great Avraham was: nothing could lessen his sense of uncompromising goodness, justice, and kindness! In all of Judaism, Avraham is always a paragon of Chesed, of kindness, love, selfless altruism. And so it is with Avraham in mind that I would like to explore today the meaning of this powerful, central Jewish value of Chesed, of lovingkindness. Throughout our tradition, our sages are very insistant that we understand that Chesed is not just a matter of doing the nice or right thing by another human being. Chesed is different from proper manners or social graces or even just social or societal expectations of being a good host, an upstanding citizen, or a generous donor. Chesed runs deep. It is the Chesed of Avraham, and his offspring Isaac and Jacob that foments a bond with God through the generations of the Jewish people, enabling our on-going survival. It is, in turn, God’s chesed for us that enables us to escape suffering and persecution from generation to generation, whether we deserve that rescuing or not. Chesed has a faithful, undyingly loyal quality to it, and Avraham embodies it.

It is Pirkei Avot that identifies Chesed as one of the three pillars upon which the whole world stands, along with Torah and worship. We need to be really clear about what Chesed means to be the worthy descendants of Avraham, or else we risk becoming the destructive descendants of Lot instead!

There’s an old Chasidic story told about the the parents of the Baal Shem Tov, who would one day grow up to be the founder of Chasidism. The story goes that one Shabbat, a stranger happened upon his parents meager home. The stranger was a very shoddy looking wanderer, carrying nothing but a staff and a knapsack-- in violation of the Shabbat prohibitions, no less! The beggar loudly wrapped on the door, and the Baal Shem Tov’s father opened the door, and the beggar rudely pushed his way into the home. “Good Shabbes. I’m hungry. Give me something to eat! And I need a place to stay,” said the beggar. With nothing but warmth and kindness, the young couple immediately prepared the Third Meal for Shabbat for the beggar. The beggar ate and rested. All through the afternoon and evening, the beggar was as rude and brutish and as course and callous as could be, and he gave not even one word of thanks or appreciation to the young couple. Even after Shabbat had ended on Saturday night, the couple continued to feed the beggar another meal, and still, not a word of thanks or gratitude from the beggar—only gruffness and total selfishness. He spent the whole night at the couple’s home, and the next morning, he woke up to find that they had prepared a hearty breakfast and even had money for him to make his way upon leaving their home. Upon seeing this act of generosity, the beggar at once revealed himself to the young couple. “I am Elijah the Prophet,” said the beggar. “I have come to test your hospitality, to see the quality of your giving. Because you were gracious to me and never once commented on my insulting behavior, nor shamed me in any way, you have passed my test. God is pleased with my findings, and finds you worthy of a son who will illumine the eyes of all Israel.” That son, would, of course, be the great Baal Shem Tov himself.

It’s a classic story from our tradition, and a great lesson to us all about hospitality. For any of us today, the act of opening up our home to strangers is difficult. But the ability to do so is crucial. The Torah tells us to love the stranger no less than 30 times! As difficult and as challenging as the act of opening our home may be, to open our home is to open our heart: and this heart-opening is the essence of Chesed, of lovingkindness itself. But it’s only the beginning of what Chesed means in Judaism. It goes even deeper!...

Both Avraham and the Baal Shem Tov’s parents teach us the same lesson: If you go through life thinking that you love God, but simultaneously you fear the stranger, then you really don’t know what it means to have a real relationship with God in the first place! In Ultimate Truth, the only way you can enter into a real relationship with the Divine is by entering into a relationship with the stranger. The stranger and God are NOT separate at all. They are one and the same! The punchline to Avraham’s story and the chasidc story of hospitality are also the same: the strangers were angels or emissaries of God themselves—really not separate from God at all! So Chesed is not just a kind act. It is an action that flows from a very deep Awareness of where we find the presence of God—in the least likely of places! But True Chesed goes deeper still even than this insight…

Another story: this time about the life of the Baal Shem Tov himself. The Baal Shem Tov, or Besht, as he was known, travelled extensively in his lifetime. Once, he visited the Jewish community of Constantinople. There he met another childless young couple, who this time showed him great kindness and hospitality. And the Besht was not a rude guest. He was a wonderful guest. ‘How can I ever thank you for your wonderful generosity?’ the Besht asked the couple. “If you could put in a good word to favor us with a child,” the young couple said, “ we will be forever grateful.” After a moment’s pause, he said, ‘God will favor you with a son.’ And indeed, this came true. But what the couple didn’t realize is that the Besht brought about this miracle by uttering the un-sayable, ineffable Name of God! To utter this name is considered a very grave sin! Scarcely had the ineffable Name passed his lips that a heavenly Voice came down and informed him that he had forfeited his place in Olam HaBa, in the World Come! Imagine! This greatest of Tzadikim had lost his chance to sit eternally at the right hand of God for the sake of this young couple! But instead of reacting with despair, the Besht clapped his hands together joyfully and burst out “Blessed art Thou, O God, for your mercy! Now I can serve you out of pure love, since I may not expect a reward in the future world!” And the p.s. to the story : his loving joy was so pure, that God pardoned him of his sin and he eventually went to Olam HaBa anyway!

What does this story mean? Pirkei Avot in the Mishnah says it best: “Al tihyu Kaavadim hamshamshin et haRav al m’nat lekabel p’ras,” Do not be like a servant who serves his master in order to receive a reward. “Elah Hevu ka’avadim hamshammshin et haRav shlo al mnat lekabel p’ras,” Rather be like a servant serving his master with no intention of receiving a reward. (Avot 1:3). Let’s take this message in today: this is not a platitude. This is an entire orientation of the heart and soul, and if we can find it within ourselves to live this way, this can not only transform our lives, it can transform the world.

Probably the most extraordinary thing about Avraham in our Torah reading—something that most of us fail to notice—is that time and again, Avraham’s acts of Chesed, of kindness, are total failures! Think about it: the strangers happen upon his tent. He scurries to and fro and prepares a sumptuous meal for them of all the finest and choicest of cakes and meats and delicacies that he has to prepare, and it’s all for naught! His guests eat what he has prepared alright, but it’s all a sham! They’re angels of God! They actually don’t need food at all. And then, notice Avraham’s next act of kindness: he learns that God is about to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gemorrah, and Avraham gathers his courage and argues with God for the sake of the possible innocent people who might still reside in the city. He argues and argues with God, bargain from 50 down to even just 10 possible righteous souls, trying with all his might to save a city from destruction. And again, of course, it’s for naught. Despite his ultimate, and risky act of audacity before God, the city is destroyed. In both instances—the guests and Sodom and Gemorrah—no one actually benefitted from his Chesed, from his selfless acts of kindness!

And herein is the deepest lessen of what Chesed really means. To live and to act in Chesed is never about the other person. To live and act in Chesed is entirely about you! It's all about your unconditional love in action. How much can you give to the stranger, no matter whether the stranger benefits or not from your giving? This is the dfference between Lot and Avraham. Lot’s Chesed, unlike Avraham, was not genuine. All of the kindness he showed to his guests was to impress them, to elicit good will and positive validation from them! In his own twisted way, his offering of his daughters in place of them was a pitiful attempt at impressing his guests. Avraham’s thought was not about how he could impress his guests, or God, or the citizens of Sodom and Gemorrah. Instead, he saw a need, he saw potential suffering, and with no thought to himself, he responded with everything he had. This was all that mattered to him. This is Chesed.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi once had a beautiful way of teaching True Chesed: when the baby cries,” he said, “ and the milk in the nursing mother lets down…that is Chesed.” It doesn’t even matter if it’s your own baby, the breast just responds by giving. This is Chesed. Can we live our lives this way? Can we walk through life with minds and hearts so wide open, so sensitive to what’s arising that we can give and give and give to relieve the suffering that we see around us—without the slightest thought about how it is received? Just take a look at what they do on the bereavement committee here at Adas Israel: when someone dies, they gently care for the body, they wash the body and lovingly prepare it for burial—even though that person is now deceased and cannot personally thank them—this is what we call Chesed shel Emet, True lovingkindness. Can we live our whole lives with this intention of giving of ourselves? Can we give tzedakah to the filthy homeless beggar on the street even if, indeed, that beggar may use the money we gave to buy drugs or alcohol? Can we give for the pure act of giving itself? Can we welcome the rude and ungrateful guest into our home, even if they’re unkind to us?

Chesed is not just about doing the nice, right thing. Chesed is a lifetime practice to shape and deepen our character, to transform us from needy, ego-centric ‘takers’ into nobler human beings who stand tall in life with no need for approval or validation or reward. Just imagine with me for a moment what that would feel like—living each and every day without the slightest need for others to express approval or to validate us. We would all finally be free! It would be a life of joy. There would be no more suffering. There would only be the spaciousness in our hearts and souls and lives to give. This is the point of living a life of Torah, of being a true child of Avraham. To expect nothing from this life but the opportunity to learn and to respond, to listen, and to take action, to love and to bring about healing. This is Chesed. This is joy. This is Torah.

We may not be there yet, at this moment, in our lives, but we can set the intention today to consciously walk the path of Avraham Avinu, of Avraham our ancestory, our teacher. Every moment that we live with no thought of reward or approval is a triumph. May our Chesed itself be its own reward. May we transform the world by transforming our hearts.