"The Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness.” (Talmud)
Parashat Vayera: Leaving God in the Woods
Have you ever wondered why couples are married under a Chupah on their wedding day?
There are many theories. Some believe that the Chupah, the wedding canopy, is a vestige of ancient Middle Eastern tent life. To this day, Bedouin tribes construct a special tent for the bride and groom on their wedding day.
But, I would like to believe that the origins of this sacred wedding space is linked to this week's Torah portion.
Indeed, this week's Torah portion, Vayera, “And God appeared to Abraham” — boils down to one sacred concept — “open doors.”
So, let's set the stage. Soon after Abraham and his entourage undergo circumcision, God appears to Judaism's founder in a shaded area near today's Hebron. Many Talmudic scholars note that this may have been the Bible's first recorded example of “visiting the sick.”
I can imagine Abraham preparing himself to ask God all of life's unanswered questions — but then something remarkable occurs.
Three men emerge from the desert dust, and Abraham turns his attention away from God, to focus his life force on one value, which remains to this day at the core of Jewish principles.
It is known as “hospitality.”
Notes the Torah, “As soon as he saw them, Abraham ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords if it please you, do not go past your servant.” (Genesis 18:3.)
Abraham calls upon his wife and staff to prepare a feast of bread, veal and curds. The travelers' feet are bathed, and a shaded location is reserved for them.
They are welcomed into Abraham's tent, which was accessible from all sides.
Isn't it interesting that one of the first acts committed by Abraham and Sarah relates to the welcoming of the stranger — no questions asked.
Meanwhile, we can only suppose that God is left waiting in the forest — likely very pleased. For as we learn in our tradition, God does not need our prayers and sacrifices. God just wants us to take care of each other.
It is why when I preside at a wedding — I make note of the fact, that “just as the first couple of Judaism had a tent open to all — the Chupah represents carrying forward of the value of hospitality at the home of the “newest” couple of Judaism.
Later, after Sarah dies, the number one characteristic that Abraham looks for as he asks his servant, Eliezer, to find a bride for Isaac, is — hospitality.
And Rebecca fits the bill, later moving into Sarah's previously vacant tent. For not only does she draw enough water for a parched Eliezer, but for his fleet of camels as well.
Is it any wonder that one of the most enduring values of Judaism throughout the ages has been “kindness towards the stranger?”
At Passover, we are encouraged to invite friends and strangers to our Seder table. On Succoth, we are inspired to welcome our ancestors in spirit, and our friends and relatives in person.
I recall in 1991, during our honeymoon in San Diego, Patte and I attended a Friday night Shabbat service at a local synagogue. Within minutes of our arrival, we were flooded with by invitations to attend Shabbat dinner. An hour later, we were seated at the head of the rabbi's table.
Friends, during these fractious times, some have begun to move away from these values. We tend to be increasingly cautious of the stranger.
Whereas many scholars — including the great Rabbi Akiva — have designated the greatest line in the Torah as, “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:17) Lately, and too often, some have sought to redefine our neighborhood.
Are our neighbors limited to being white, European, American, Democrat or Republican, Jewish or Christian?
I can only believe that more than 3,000 years ago, when Abraham fell over himself as he welcomed the three strangers, he did not ask these hungry and thirsty wanderers what cable channel they watched or more importantly, which god they believed in.
Rather, sharing the basic vulnerability of all humanity, he invited the strangers in without requiring them to complete an entry form.
Is there a lesson in this for us all? Is it any wonder that a newly married couple begins life together under a tent with open sides?
The Torah tells us that “not upon bread alone does man live.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) Are we spending too much time evaluating the success of our current society based on stock market trends or fluctuating employment statistics?
Is that what our society is founded upon? Or is the strength, and integrity of our society based on the stability of our tent pegs?
We learn this week, that Judaism has no tolerance for lack of empathy. Rather, we feed and satisfy our guests — family, friends and strangers — and from that common ground — we can learn to respect each other's differences.
The Talmud teaches that no mortal can be exactly like God — for none of us is a burning bush.
But the Talmud notes — as it points to how God clothed Adam and Eve, how God visited Abraham during his illness, how God comforted Isaac after Abraham's death, and how God buried Moses after his passing — that, “The Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness.” (Sotah 14b)
As we approach Thanksgiving, a traditional holiday predicated upon some of our greatest American values, let us add an addition to the invitation list.
Is there anyone who may be alone — lost in the wilderness?
Let us aspire to be like Abraham and Sarah — and, like every couple married in Jewish wedding ceremony, let extreme hospitality be at the forefront of our considerations.
God does not mind waiting in the forest.
For as Judaism — through the channeling of God's spirit — inspires us to consider each day, “the Torah begins with kindness and ends with kindness.”
And may I respectfully add, that everything in between — is about kindness.
Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.
Rabbi Irwin Huberman