Thursday, October 21, 2010

Parashat Vayera: Hospitality - A Family Project

Hospitality – A Family Project.
Rav Alex Israel

Our Parsha opens with the image of Avraham Avinu sitting at the entrance to his tent. Almost immediately, a small group of wayfarers enter the scene and we witness an account of Avraham’s overwhelming hospitality to them. Avraham Avinu, recovering from surgery runs to draw guests into his home. The words “run”, “quick” are repeated over and over as Avraham hurries to attend to the strangers' every need. He personally supervises the kitchens; he acts as a waiter serving their food. He also accompanies them on their way, not letting them leave without an escort.

The Halakha sees Avraham as a paradigm of Chessed. It uses Avraham as a Halakhic role model:

"Charity and Giving are traits of the Tzaddik, of the offspring of Avraham Avinu" (Mishna Torah, Laws of Gifts to Poor 10:1)

“The reward of escorting a visitor from one’s home is the greatest of all rewards for hospitality. This is a law set in place by Avraham Avinu and the charitable ways that he made his lifestyle. He would give wayfarers food and drink and would escort them on their way. “ (Mishne Torah. Hilchot Evel . 14:2)

These values are seen to override even the concerns of God Himself! The Halacha continues (based on Gemara Shabbat 127a):

“Hospitality is of greater worth than receiving the Divine Presence itself. This we learn from Genesis 18:2: ‘And he looked up and saw three men (and ran towards them)’.” (ibid – and see Rashi's reading of the opening passuk)


In another scene of the Parsha, we witness Lot's hospitality.

"1 And the two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them; and bowed low with his face to the ground. 2 He said: 'Please, my lords, turn, I pray you, to your servant's house, and spend the night, and wash your feet, and you shall rise up early, and go on your way.' And they said: 'No; we shall spend the night in the square.' 3 And he urged them strongly; and they turned his way, and entered his house; and he prepared a feast for them, baking unleavened bread, and they ate." (19:1-3)

This account of Lot's hospitality mirrors that of Avraham. He sees them, greets them, bows down to them imploring them to join him at his home, and he offers them a place to sleep the night. Like Avraham, he prepares a meal especially for them. Clearly Lot has learnt a considerable amount from Avraham.


But there is one striking difference. Avraham involves his entire family:

"6 And Abraham hastened into the tent unto Sarah, and said: 'Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.' 7 And Abraham ran unto the herd, and fetched a calf tender and good, and gave it unto the boy (Rashi – Yishmael) …" (18:6-7)

Avraham involves his wife, his son. This is not his own personal project; it is a family agenda. This family agenda becomes our NATIONAL legacy:

“... for I have singled him (Avraham) out that he may instruct his children ... to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just (Tzedaka) and right (Mishpat) ...” (18:16-20)

Avraham is not simply a man of personal ethical standards. He teaches his children to do that which is “just and right.” He establishes a family TRADITION of Chesed that needs instruction, teaching, cultivation. It doesn't just come naturally, it must be taught, inculcated not merely by example, but rather by practice and training.


And what of Lot's family? We do not hear of his daughters waiting upon the visitors at the table. Even his wife is absent as he entertains the two angelic messengers in his home. Lot has to bake the bread himself, it was Lot who personally prepared the food. His family was uninvolved.

Maybe it is not surprising then, that sons-in-law desire to remain in Sedom, his wife, so distressed at the destruction of her hometown, looks back and is turned into lifeless unproductive salt. And what of Lot's two daughters? They end up in an act of incest with their father. Lot's family do not join the community of Chessed, of that which is Just and Right, Tzedek and Mishpat. They live for themselves. Despite the example of their father, the value of Chessed failed to pass over the generational divide.


And for us, who are part of the legacy of Avraham Avinu, we should appreciate the central role of Chessed. And that the only way to pass on this vital tradition is by transforming our entire home into a welcoming place, a tent of Abraham, involving our entire family in the project of Hachnassat Orchim.

In Pirkei Avot (1:5), Rabbi Yose ben Yochanan talks about our "home" being open. Chessed is not simply a trait adopted by individuals; it must permeate families, homes and communities. Then we can ensure that our children too will cherish their legacy and continue it always.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Parashat Vayera - Welcoming Outsiders...or, musings on Orthodox tolerance.

Parashat Vayera opens with a scene that lies at the heart of Jewish ethic of hospitality. In the heat of the day, three strangers pass by Avraham's tent, and in flurry of activity Avraham welcomes them in , offers them food, slaughters an animal, bakes bread, and serves them a sumptuous meal.

We, the readers (and products of elementary Jewish day school education) all know that these are angels, divine messengers, but Avraham thinks they are merely three strangers. Avraham's hospitality is astounding in its energy, its sincerity and depth. Would we ever beg three homeless individuals to have a huge meal at our home?

I found myself using Avraham as a paradigm of openeness and acceptance in a recent conversation when I remarked how we in the Orthodox Jewish community are frequently inward looking, leaving outsiders - visitors and newly-religious people - feeling unwelcome, whether inadvertantly, or deliberately. The Orthodox world can often be wary and judgmental to Jews from other denominations, as with those whose actions, dress, or body language communicate the fact that they are non-observant. We have subtle codes that help us identify the members of our sub-group, and we frequently do not realise the degree to which our uniformity is off-putting and unwelcoming. When one encounters the rare Orthodox environment which is genuinely welcoming to ALL Jews, one realises how much effort and thoughtfulness needs to be invested to ensure that visitors feel fully comfortable in our communities.
(For an interesting piece about the Orthodox world in this regard, see Allan Nadler's article here.)

So as I said, I was talking about how Avraham just welcomes strangers to his home without any entrance requirements - no kippa, no Shabbat, no dress code - just a warm welcome.

and then I recalled this Rashi:

רש"י בראשית פרק יח
ורחצו רגליכם - כסבור שהם ערביים שמשתחוים לאבק רגליהם והקפיד שלא להכניס עבודה זרה לביתו.
"Wash your feet: He thought that they were arabs who worshipped the dust on their feet. Since he was particular not to admit idolatry to his house ( he asked them to wash off the dust."

In other words, the Midrash inserts that Avraham DOES have entry restrictions and particular standards of conduct for one to be admitted. Idolaters are not welcome unless they divest themselves of their idolatry!

It is amazing that a simple Rashi like this makes a huge difference in perspective. Do we welcome outsiders warmly, without question, or do we insist that in some manner or form, they conform to our modes of behaviour and belief, that they not interupt and obstruct our world, our value system?

Rabin Memorial Day - 15 years on

Today is the 15th anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin's assassination. Anyone who remembers that dreadful night and the shock filled days that followed remembers the overwhelming sense of pain, the confusion and bewilderment, the sadness, the trauma, the shame. It was an upheaval of the deepest and widest proportions as if an earthquake had transpired within our country.

15 years on, I want to share two thoughts that I had this year.

First, is the fact that even though the radio and TV have dedicated some time to Rabin today, it is not the first item on any of the news channels or websites. In contrast to the initial years following Rabin's murder when the awareness of Rabin's memory and the violence of the assassination was a palpable presence that could be sensed on the streets, in the air, on this day, this year I feel it is in the background. Yes, it is on the calendar, there will be a state ceremony, but the routine continues, life moves on, and everyone is functioning normally.

Is that bad? Is Rabin being forgotten? No! I actually think that it is a sign of the maturity and resilience of Israeli society that we have managed to emerge from those dark days and to move beyond the mourning and the pain. It is evidence of a healthy society that this has moved from the foreground to a quieter place, where it is noted but it doesn't dominate.

Don't get me wrong. I think we need to teach the lessons of Rabin's murder, about the need for care in our public discourse, of red lines that may never be crossed even in passionate public conflicts, and of the importance of tolerance, and an understanding that one must coexist with people with whom you passionately disagree. Nonetheless, the fact that this is less intense, is I believe a healthy sign.

My second point relates to the commemoration and grappling with the assassination within Religious-Zionist (Right-Wing) circles.

With Yigal Amir coming from Religious Zionist institutions, and with the Right wing the most vocal denouncers of Rabin, the Religious Zionist community was under harsh attack in the days, months and years following the assassination. By the Left-wing and media, the entire Right-Wing were labeled as pariahs and murderers in a harsh and unfair stereotyping. This lead to a situation in which the Religious Zionist communities had no way to mark or talk about Rabin's murder. After all, they disagreed with and fought his Peace process. And as for talk about tolerance and the danger of violent rhetoric, the Right Wing was too bruised to express themselves. (see for example, this article - link) For years, I was distressed that Rabin's assassination was barely mentioned in my kids' school.

And to my surprise, this year in Efrat, my daughter's school did organise an extensive program about tolerance to mark Rabin's assassination.

Maybe this also takes 15 years. For the Right wing community to feel that they are not under such harsh accusation, they too can now begin to grapple with aspects of this terrible crime.

One last thought. Yuli Tamir (a former Labour education minister) was quoted today (link) as saying that we need to educate more about the dangers of incitement within the Israeli public discourse. Well, I have one thing to say to Yuli Tamir. The public, just like kids, learn by example. If we wish to lower the excessive, harmful, levels of incitement within the Israeli political discourse, then the MK's should be the first group to tone down their harsh rhetoric, their labeling and their acrimonious speech. Then possibly we will have role models of tolerance and mutual respect in our midst.

If only!