Friday, November 3, 2017

Parashat Vayera for Religious School Shabbat

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Vayera, which opens with Abraham sitting at the opening of his tent hanging out with God. Abraham then raises his eyes and notices three men standing before him. He jumps up to greet them, tells them they must rest a while, offers them a morsel of food, and is simply the gold star of hospitality. Based on this behavior, the early medieval rabbis teach in the Talmud (a multi-volume series of books of Jewish commentary on Torah, rituals, and daily rules for Jewish life), “Welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah [God]” (Shabbat 127a).
            Modern day scholar Rabbi Shai Held writes about this in his new book of Torah commentaries as well. He segues from this quote from the Talmud to reference a philosophical principal taught by 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. I’ve never read Kierkegaard and I’m guessing neither have most of you, but I can still understand Rabbi Held’s point when he says he wants to flip Kierkegaard’s teaching around and offer that our Torah teaches the importance of “the ethical postponement of the theological.” By this he means, when faced with a real-life application of a mitzvah, a Jewish value and commandment, it is more important to fulfill that tangible goal than to remain seated and continue your chat with God. For Abraham, that means jumping up to greet the visitors even though we are told the Divine Presence is sitting with him.
            There’s another a common teaching on this subject from one of our earliest rabbis, usually repeated around Tu B’Shevat, the new year for the trees which Jews celebrate in January or February. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai would teach, “If you are holding a sapling in your hand – about to plant a new tree – and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here!’ first finish planting the tree, and then go to greet the messiah.” Again, this teaches us that it is more important to finish the mitzvah of the here and now than to focus your mind too much on the state of Heaven.
            After Abraham welcomes in his guests and offers them a mere morsel of food, the Torah tells us that he and his wife Sarah actually fed the guests a fancy feast. The rabbis teach us that this shows Abraham is the embodiment of the teaching “say little, do much, and greet every person with a friendly face.” Abraham didn’t need to show off or make a big deal about feeing his guests. He was modest in what he said he had to share, but then he was generous in what he did share. And most importantly, he did both steps with a smile.
            Although prayer is important and I hope you all have a relationship with God, it is more important to be kind and welcoming to others. This week, I want you all to think more about your words and your actions. Do they match? Are you more focused on telling people about yourself, or on showing people who you truly are? Are your heads in the clouds, or are you focused on your tasks before you? May you find that it is easy for you to say little, do much, and greet every person with a friendly face. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

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