Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Stranger

The Medrash taught "Great is 'hesed' (acts of loving kindness)that the Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed." The Medrash goes on to point out that the Torah begins with the story of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden,where after their calamitous sin G-d Himself clothes them. At the Torah's end we read of G-d's hesed in seeing to the burial of Moshe.

If the Torah is replete with a message of hesed much of the call to hesed is found in the early portions of the Torah we are currently reading . And that call is not given to us directly in the form of commandments but rather we learn from stories, stories of G-d's kindness, stories of G-d's loving ways, stories that teach us behaviors we are meant to emulate in our challenge to follow in G-d's ways.

And so from this week's reading of Vayeira we are called to the hesed of visiting the sick even as Hashem visited our father Avraham after his brit mila. And from the reading of next week, where we read of Hashem's blessing to Yitzchak after his mother, Sarah's death, we learn to comfort the mourner etc.

What is interesting however is that one of the most important mitzvot of hesed we don't learn from Hashem's ways at all, but rather we learn from the acts of human-kindness, in fact the kindness of Avraham and his actions in this week's parsha.
What mitzva is that? The mitzvah of'hachnasat orchim, inviting guests into one's home, hospitality.

The mitzva of hospitality, 'hachnasat orchim' is learned from the outset of this week's reading where Avraham rushed from his tent to meet the angels, he believed were travellers, walking down the road. It mattered not to Avraham that he has no idea who they were. He invited them into his home, washed them, fed them and served their needs as a valet. More, Avraham sets-out a lavish feast for them as if they were royalty honoring him with their presence. His hospitality knows no bounds. It models for us our call to the hesed of 'hachnasat orchim'.

But the question we might ask is why of all the calls to hesed is this hesed of hospitality learned from a human example and not one Divine? The call to 'hachnasat orchim' unlike 'bikur cholim','malbish arumim' and 'nichum availim' emerges not from 'Imitatio Dei' but from the inspiring example of our Patriarch.
Why? Why is their no Divine example here?

Many of us know the story of the birth of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the only child to his parents and born in their old age. Tradition has it that it was the 'zechut', merit of the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' that gained Reb Eliezer, the father of the Besht, this unusual gift from Heaven. Indeed the story goes that Satan challenged Heaven's intent to reward Reb Eliezer for the 'hachnasat orchim' he and his wife performed in such an exemplary way. And so Reb Eliezer and his wife were put to a test. The prophet Eliyahu came to them on Shabbat dressed in weekday clothes and appearing to have desecrated the Shabbat in his behavior. He even said "Gut Shabbos" to Reb Eliezer so there could be no excuse that he was confused or unaware of the holy day. Reb Eliezer might have good reason to resist inviting this 'sinner' into his home especially on the Shabbat itself. Yet Reb Eliezer and his wife extended themselves to this seeming Shabbat violator. They hosted him, providing him with wonderful meals and lodging. They never mentioned his wayward behavior. In fact, when it was time to part, Reb Eliezer and his wife invited the Jew to please return to them again and soon so they might host him once more.

The story of Reb Eliezer and that of our father Avraham have one important thing in common. They teach us that the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' is essentially intended to host the stranger, s/he who is other than us. Its no great deal to invite our family, our neighbor, a community member or a 'landsman', a friend into our home. What we are challenged to do in this mitzva of hesed is to invite someone whose ways and behaviors are different than our own. Avraham invited those he thought non-believers, men whose purpose and values were totally alien to his own. Reb Eliezer invited the 'sinner' and on Shabbat. We, in their image, are called to reach out to the ones living on the margins, those whose ways may not conform to ours at all. Yet we extend our lives and our homes to them.

Think about it. We may argue that its a sin to invite such persons into our homes, our sacred and protected space. We may well argue that allowing the one estranged into our personal sanctuary will pollute the place we most treasure and safeguard from the 'bad' influences that exist in the world without.

Yet from the story of Reb Eliezer and from the model behavior of Avraham we learn that 'hachnasat orchim' calls us to invite into the place most private to us and protected s/he who is in need of hospitality. It calls on us to risk exposing ourselves to those foreign, even those holding beliefs and values antithetical to our own, into the core of our existence.

It is for this reason that the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' is learned from the behaviors of a human, Avraham, rather than through imitation of the ways of G-d. Its true G-d extends himself and makes a home for the the one in need and estranged. But we cannot learn the extent of the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' from Hashem because no one is a 'stranger' to Hashem. Even the greatest of sinners is still His child. We all are to Him 'bnai bayit', members of the home. For the mitzvot of ' bikur cholim' and 'nichum availim' it matters not whether the person is family or stranger to the essence of the mitzva. In all cases the hesed essentially remains the same. But 'hachnasat orchim' has meaning to the extent that we reach-out to the person different from us and welcome him/her into our home. For that we can only learn from another human dealing with an 'other' not from Hashem for whom all are part of His family.

Few mitzvot earn for a person the blessing in this world that does the hesed of 'hachnasat orchim'. But we must not fool ourselves. The essence of the mitzva calls for us to invite into our home and life the one who is not us, the one different and other, no small challenge for sure!

The opportunities for fulfilling the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' are many. And we can do so in ways that require less effort than preparing and serving a meal or giving lodging. Simply saying "Shabbat Shalom" can be a form of hachnasat orchim, or perhaps engaging another in the language they know when its a language in which we are not fluent. The main ingredient of this hesed is found not in the 'what' we do, but to whom! "Shabbat Shalom" to the stranger, trying to communicate with the one different from us in culture and background, that is what matters!

Do you want to have a part of this great mitzva? Do you want to be called a 'machnis orach'? Look around you, find the stranger, and extend yourself! How much more beautiful our world would be if we indeed took this hesed in its truest form to heart.

Shabbat Shalom !

Friday, October 15, 2010

Following Our Destiny

Some years ago Paul Cohelo wrote an interesting book titled "The Alchemist". In it he told a fable of a boy, a poor shepard, who had a vision that a great treasure lay waiting for him in a very distant land, far far from his home. The story is of the boys journey towards the realization of his dream, a journey that is replete with obstacles, distractions, and dangers, a journey of many years and even more encumbrances.

The end of last week's Parsha of Noach and the outset of the portion of this week of Lech Lecha gave mind to that compelling story. You may recall, at the end of last week's reading we first meet our father Avraham. We are told that he was born into the family of Terach, his father, in the land of Ur Casdim. Further we are told that Terach uprooted the family from Ur Casdim with the intention of migrating to Canaan. On the way he stopped in Charan and wound-up settling there. Eventually he died there, never making it to Canaan.

In the beginning of Lech Lecha, Hashem commands Avraham (then Avram) to travel to a land that he will be shown. Avram is promised that if he travels as G-d commands, even though he does not yet know the destination, he will be rewarded with great blessings, blessing that would never be possible for him if he remained in Charan.

In keeping with G-d's command Avraham takes his family and migrates. Where does he go? We would expect the verses to tell us that G-d, somewhere along the line, informed Avraham of where he is to go. But no, nowhere does it say that Avraham received instructions as to his destination. Rather the 'pasuk' tells us "And Avram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his nephew, and all their property and the souls he made in Charan and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan." Only once he was there do we find Hashem appeared to him and told Avram that indeed this is the land that was destined to belong to his descendants.

The question is how did Avraham know where to go? How did he decide on his direction, his course? On the basis of what did he journey to Canaan?

I believe the answer is that even though Avram did not know what Hashem had in store for him as a final destination, he knew that if he was meant to travel it had to be to Cannan. Cannan was after-all the place his father was meant to make home. Life's issues got in the way and he settled in Charan. Yet Cannan was always the family's destiny.If Avram was going to travel at all, if he was to realize the blessings Hashem intended for him, he knew he had to get to Cannan. From there he might have to go to other places Hashem had in mind. But once given the command to travel it was obvious that Cannan was the direction. In the end,as it turned out, Canaan was not only the immediate destination but the ultimate destiny and home G-d had intended for Avram,for his family, and indeed for us.

What's the message here? My sense is that we are being shown an important truth for all of our lives. Each of us at one time or another has had a sense of a journey we were meant to make, a destiny or as we say in the holy language, a 'tachlis', a calling that was ours, our personal journey we were meant to make, one we may have long forgotten.What happened to our call. It may have gotten buried in the exigencies of life or neglected in favor of other more accessible goals. The price we may have had to pay to realize the call may have made our destiny feel unattainable. Or we simply may have given up in frustration and chosen another path.

In the end, not pursuing our personal call has had its consequences. It compromises our spirit and robs us of our 'joi de vivre'. Most importantly the blessings that were meant for us can never be gained. Our life lacks the gifts intended for us.

The story of Avraham's journey tells us that it need not be too late. Though Terach died and missed his call, Avram could yet realize it, and he was already 75! We need to go back and remember. What remains unfinished for us? What calling did we know way back when that we can yet reclaim. True it may have to take a slightly different shape, and it may not be the full measure possible for us in an earlier time in our life, but yet the call may well be redeemable, if only we give it the attention and priority it deserves.

What "lech lecha" is there for us in fulfilling a destiny yet unrealized? What blessing remains for us to claim?
Things to think about this Shabbat, things to excite the memory and imagination.
We are never too old to pursue our journey!

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

When Thanks is No Thanks

"Thank you". I am not sure there are any two words more often spoken in our society than those. We say thanks to everyone, from the waiter who brings our food in the restaurant to the person who cuts our hair. We thank when someone does us a favor and we thank when we pay for what we receive. We say thanks to strangers, people we don't actually know, and we say thanks to members of our own family for kindnesses both great and small.

The importance of "thank you" should not be minimized. Our Sages long taught that our relationship to G-d is founded on 'hakarat hatov', gratitude for the good we receive from Him.To the extent we lack gratitude is to the very extent our devotion to Hashem is compromised. Ramchal in his classic Mesilat Yesharim makes clear that the key to being faithful to G-d is feeling appreciation for all the blessings He bestows on us.

Yet I think it is important to realize that being thankful is much more than saying "Thank you". We can say "Thank you" a thousand times a day and remain essentially ungrateful. When the Sages called us to "hakarat hatov", they were focusing on our internalization of the indebtedness we owe for the goodness we receive. In short, gratitude is seen, not so much by what we say, but by what we do!

Let me give an illustration. The other night an old friend from the States called and said she was in Yerushalayim and wanted to visit, in a few hours! She realized she had not given any notice and since it was my daughter she most wanted to see, she said "I will take her out for Pizza". Wanting to be a good host I said "Why go out? Come and we will make supper here".

It was nice of me to offer. But the task of making the supper fell on my wife, who had just gotten home from working all day when I go the call. To Lindy's credit, in the spirit of our Matriarch Sarah, she was happy to prepare the meal, and on the spot! She was a great host and the food was delicious.

Now after Lindy's effort, of course, I said "Thank you". In fact I repeated several times that night how much I appreciated what Lindy did, and for someone who was not her friend, nor the friend of her daughter, but mine and the friend of my daughter!.

Yet, and here's the rub, the next day there was a confusion about the time of a meeting we were supposed to attend together and Lindy came home late . I was upset and angry.I blamed her. I expressed annoyance with her.
Where had all the thankfullness of the day before gone? I mean, if I was truly grateful for her great kindness of the day prior how could I become so upset now. Sure I said "thank you". But unless I feel thankful, and not only in the moment but in the context of our life together, the thanks is empty.

In the Parsha of Noach, which we read this week, one of Noach's sons, Ham, and his grandson, Canaan, see Noach in a vulnerable moment. They comrpomise him in his time of shame. And in the end, for their lack of respect for their father, they are cursed by him.
We might imagine that Ham, and all the family , had expressed thankfulness to Noach and many times. After all, because of him they were spared when the whole world was destroyed in the flood. Yet when it came time to show thanks, in Noach's moment of weakness, they ridiculed him or worse. The thanks they may have spoken was empty, no matter how sincerely expressed, if it did not translate into grateful behavior.

It is not enough that we say "thank you" or even feel "thank you" in the moment. Our relationship to G-d and to our spouses and community is based on our feeling a continuing sense of indebtedness, one that effects our behaviors towards the other even when we don't quite feel the "love". Gratitude needs to be more than a sentiment. It needs to be an operating dynamic in our lives, and in relationship.

In this case as in so many others in our lives, the call to us when we say "thank you" is "show, don't tell!". We need to show the gratefulness to make it matter. Talking the words without the concommitant behaviors is vacuuous.

Shabbat Shalom