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.

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