This week’s parasha begins, “Vayera eilav YHVH …”, “And YHVH appeared/was seen” (Genesis 18:1). Incident after incident throughout the parasha involves people seeing or not seeing God – all around us. From this it is taught that Abraham shows true humanity because he truly sees the potential for harnessing holiness when he is aware of what is going on around him.
Through Abraham, the following sacred obligations have been given to us as an inheritance. Each opportunity for person-to-person connection is a call to the angel within and an affirmation that community is yet another expression of godliness.
Visiting the sick – Hebrew: Bikur Cholim
The rabbis tell us that the Holy One visited Abraham when he was recovering from his circumcision (Genesis 18:1; BT Sota, 14a). While such a visit may not change the course of one’s illness, it may ease physical and emotional distress. The very presence of a caring person can provide comfort and even help assuage the fears of the one who is suffering. Through the practice of visiting the sick, we bring more compassion into the world.
There is tremendous emotional and physical stress these days. How many people in our society feel invisible or forgotten? The elderly, the infirm, the divorced, the displaced, the disabled often live in emotional, physical and spiritual isolation. What will it take for us to open our hearts with radical welcoming? Can we set aside our own fears in order to reach out to others? This can take many forms – inviting folks for dinner, especially Shabbat dinner; visiting people who are shut-in; reaching out with a smile, a kind word to indicate that we are present for others because we are diminished when others are intentionally or unintentionally excluded. In my fifth week post-surgery, I can attest first-hand to the power of visits. They helped me stay connected during these long weeks of being housebound, when I felt most isolated.
Bikur cholim may also prime us to act on the politics and business of healthcare. Fear about the future of affordable healthcare is rising, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. We are taught not to abandon those who suffer, but rather to look after them with great compassion. Our vigilance in fighting the on-going battle to provide access to quality and affordable healthcare is also an act of justice – one that saves lives and ensures that those in need can live and die with dignity.
Hospitality to strangers – Hebrew: Hachnasat Orchim
Abraham, in the midst of God’s visit, sees three strangers approaching his tent and turns his full attention to greet them with consideration and graciousness (Genesis 18:1-8). Of note is the focus on Abrahams’ speediness in attending to his guests’ needs, including personally preparing their food. From this the rabbis teach, “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence: (BT Shab. 127a). Aaron of Karlin taught that when we turn our attention from Godly matters to human matters, we engage in sacred doing. The Holy One is not pleased when our focus on the Divine becomes exclusive, leading us to ignore the needs of human beings ( p.99).
How many people in our country are victims of xenophobic hostility? Hospitality, then, extends from the individual to the communal to the national realms. What can we do to keeps these doors open? Becoming educated about immigration-related issues and policy, working on behalf of immigrants who seek refuge in our country, sustaining sanctuary cities, and opening our houses of worship and our homes send a strong message of welcome.
Courage – Hebrew: Ometz Lev
In the Story of Sodom and Gomorrah, even as the Holy One informs Abraham of his decision to destroy these cities on account of the lawlessness of the people, Abraham pleads on behalf of the innocent. Abraham sees the good within a sea of wickedness and feels compelled to challenge God, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” (Genesis 18:25). Abraham, seeing the righteous within a sea of wickedness, is compelled to challenge God on their behalf.
In all three instances, Abraham’s action is focused on building community and demonstrating humanity. We, too, as children of Abraham, should be courageous in building relationships with each other and wise in understanding how these relationships effect and reverberate on a familial, communal and national level.
This post-election time has proven difficult on many fronts. There is polarization and even isolation within our communities. Tempting as it is to fall into despair or focus on the actualization of our fears, we have a responsibility to pursue justice – in small ways and in broader ways; through political action and through forging connections with our neighbors; through working to find common ground and shared values.
Ometz lev literally means an “effort of the heart,” and it is that very courageous effort that must pull us forward out of the darkness of what feels like a time of lawlessness. We must challenge ourselves to be brave and unrelenting in the face of destructive forces. This will not happen if we become immobilized as a result of becoming imprisoned by our obsession with following social media, some of which contains false or misleading information, that incapacitates us and fills us with by undirected anger, fear, or a feeling of powerlessness.
Humor combined with courage is proving to be healing and empowering. Consider the actions of those fighting for reproductive rights by donating to Planned Parenthood in “honor of Mike Pence,” sending Chanukah books to Steve Bannon to underscore the sacred fight for religious freedom, the “Pantsuit Nation” organizing a million women march in January, and even late night t.v., using humor to shed light on the dangerous beliefs and hateful behaviors of many white Americans.
Abraham could have shut himself in, isolating himself during his recovery. Instead, he placed himself in a tent open on all sides, looking for how he might invite people into a way of compassionate, courageous and just living. May the lessons we learn from Abraham lead us to make choices from a sacred place that reflects our deepest humanity. Then and only then will the angels of peace (Mal’achei ha-shalom) reign, bringing us hope for a better tomorrow.
Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi