On the Importance of Welcoming - Rosh Hashanah 2015

When we think of the great leaders whom we have relied upon in the past, the greatest figures of Jewish leadership who have bequeathed to us the Jewish present, there is no figure more remarkable than that of Avraham. We have read about Avraham today in all of his complexity and greatness. He is a man of extraordinary faith to be sure. He is a man of political skill. He is a man of compassion, aching over the idea of exiling Yishmael, the kid anyone would apparently have had a tough time loving. He is a man with a challenging family situation, to say the least. He is a man who is, honestly, hard to emulate. Would you like to circumcise yourself in your 90s? Could you imagine leaving everything you know to start a new life in a foreign land, all based on a promise from an invisible God? This guy was more than a prophet- we have had plenty of those who fell short -- he was more than a leader -- for those who haven’t been watching the news, they can be flawed as well. Avraham was alone, the only Jew in the world. A simply amazing figure. I would say, without any equal.

Your translations may have been a bit off this morning. I will offer you the following interpretative translation, hot off the presses from JPS, which gets at the core of Avraham’s extraordinary character:

And it came to pass after these things that God did test Abraham. And He said to him "Abraham!" And Abraham replied "Hineni - (here I am)". And He said, "Take your computer, your old computer, your 286; and install upon it an operating system, a new operating system, Windows95, which I will show to you."

And Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his donkey. He loaded his computer, his old computer, his 286, on the donkey And he took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son. And he rose up and went to the place where G*d had told him, there to find Windows95.

Then, on the third day, Abraham lifted his eyes and saw Windows95 from afar. And Avraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and load Windows95 on our 286, and come again to you". And Abraham took his computer, his old computer, his 286, and laid it on Isaac his son. And they went both of them together.

And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father, and said, "My father.. And he replied, "Hineni - Here I am my son." And Isaac said, "Windows95 requires far more memory than a 286 has, how will it possibly run on your machine?"

And Abraham looked at his son, his only son, whom he loved; and he shook his head slowly, and in perfect faith and with unswerving trust and belief in the Almighty, he said, "Fear not, Isaac my son, God will provide the RAM."

So we read about Avraham, his faith, his family, and his life today. We don’t read about the story of creation itself, a natural choice. We don’t read about the obvious high moments of the Torah- the redemption from Egypt, the splitting of the Red Sea, the giving of the Ten Commandments. Instead, we read about this remarkable man, his family struggles, his loneliness, even his doubts perhaps. While the Torah doesn’t record any reservations in the narrative of the binding of Isaac, the Akeidah, the midrash peers into the gaps in the story and sees many. It notes that God had to be somewhat repetitive: “Take your son, your only one, the one you love, that is Isaac.” The midrash hears in this a desperate attempt to nullify the command. “But I don’t have one son, I have two; each is the only child of his mother; I love them both; how can I fulfill this order if I am unsure about the particulars?” And just a few chapters before today’s reading Avraham’s faith takes a clear back seat to his zeal for justice and his compassion for all of creation, even for those strangers who are such a pain to him in his time settling the Promised Land. He is told that the cities of Sdom and Ammorah will be destroyed for their sins. But Avraham is not only a man of faith, and so he doesn’t take it for granted that God has thought this through. Instead he argues for the potential innocent victims who will be destroyed in the righteous divine rage that appears on its way. He haggles and negotiates his way down to the number 10. He gets God’s word that if there is even a minyan of the blameless that the city won’t be leveled. Yet even in these two stories, the Binding of Isaac and the negotiating on behalf of these two cities, where doubt may surface for a moment, even here his greatness is on display. Here also we see courage, audacity, love, and a superhuman conviction in the right.

With such a figure you, and I, could be forgiven for simply admiring from afar. What a prophet! What a paragon of virtue and conviction. But we can’t possibly be expected to follow in his path. Maybe we should see him as a trailblazer, a sollel derech, whose journey is only to be followed in that he has cleared the course, scouted the way, and we can follow along after. We cannot be expected to withstand challenges like his, as we are dwarfed by his greatness.

But, there is another piece of the Abraham legacy, the story of this first of the Avot, which is very open to us, and which provides a ready model for anyone. In the beginning of Parashat Vayera, the same sedra in which today’s reading appears, Avraham is having one of his many private audiences with the Almighty. Pretty amazing stuff, just the two of them, the One on one. And then abruptly, without warning, Avraham must have seen something from out of the corner of his eye. He caught sight of a group of travelers, three men, appearing to need a place to sit, something to eat, maybe even a mattress upon which to sleep. And Avraham says to God, essentially, hold that thought. I am so sorry to interrupt you but, I’ve got to scoot. These look like potential guests.

Two rabbis in the Talmud take careful note of this scene and they learn that Avraham was trying to teach us an important, maybe a little more accessible, lesson. Based on the principle that the Torah wouldn’t record it if it didn’t teach us a crucial insight, maaseh avot siman lebanim, the doings of the patriachs offers guidance to us children, "Rav Dimi of Nehardea said: Hachnasat orchim -- the welcoming of guests takes precedence over the beit midrash -- the house of study...Rav Judah said in Rav's name: Hachnasat orchim -- the welcoming of guests takes precedence over welcoming the divine presence -- the Shechinah" (Shabbat 127a).

Did you catch that? Gedolah hachnasat orchim milekabel penei hashechina, it is greater to welcome in guests than to greet the very divine presence.

The man who argued with God, who took his child to a mountaintop ready to offer him as a sacrifice, the man who started the journey which would become Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the most towering figure in Jewish history is teaching us, simply, to open our homes to visitors. It is more important than even greeting the divine presence.

This seems a bit of a stretch. After all, guests can be difficult, they can be troublesome, they can be, well, a nuisance. But they are just people, sometimes looking for a meal, or maybe a little more. Are they really more important than reaching the pinnacle of spiritual communion with the divine? What was Avraham thinking and what did Rav mean?

I want to tell you a little about the welcoming of guests, hachnasat orchim, in my experience. On Shabbat afternoons in the nice weather, Leah and I (and I am sure you all know it is 95% Leah) welcome all comers to our home for relaxation, Shabbat rest, some food, some basketball, some singing and davening, and finally Havdalah. We had our first Shabbat basketball this summer and (with some atmospheric fanfare) we had an extraordinary turnout. 150 members of the community came to schmooze, spend Shabbat afternoon and enjoy one another’s presence on Shabbat. Leah and I are often quite tired after these events, and it is not always our first instinct to open our doors. But we have done so for some very selfish reasons. We want to be with you, our community, on Shabbat. We want our kids to feel the joy of a shared community and the energy that only comes from being together. We are not crazy, although some may think so, and we are not trying to trick anyone into a major lifestyle change. We are only doing what feels natural with four children. We are providing them with playmates, ourselves with companionship, and our community with a spirit of Shabbat.

There are all the details, the setting out of plates -- no not those the ones that match the napkins -- the wiping down of the chairs, the pouring of the chips and dip (sometimes the tasting of the chips and dip) and the putting of drinks in the fridge. I can almost feel the model of Avraham as I go through these weekly paces. And on other occasions as well, whether on a Shabbat, a hag, or even on the weekday, I almost can imagine the scene. Avraham by his tent flap, sitting in the noonday sun, looking for those who need shelter. Telling Sarah, have some extra pasta salad ready, I think I see a caravan coming. Take out the Scotch. Do you think they play ball? But is this really more important than welcoming the Shechina?

Whether it was back in the early days of Avraham and Sarah’s journey, back in Haran, or whether it was by the tents of Mamre when he told God to hold the phone while he brought in the guests, or even in the Rosh Hashanah reading itself, where Avraham is described as planting an “ESHEL”, usually translated as a taberenith tree but understood by the rabbis as a kind of watering hole for travelers, the entire career of Avraham is bound up in his acts of kindness to strangers and hospitality. And this is really the essence of the mission of Avraham, and by extension, us, his descendants. You see if we think about the spiritual greats, the intellects and philosophers, the mystics and the pious, we are left in awe. They were nearly beyond this world, ascending, sometimes literally, to the mountaintop to contemplate things eternal and the true. That may have been the natural path for Avraham as well. But he was not just supposed to perfect himself like some monk, nor was he supposed to be just a thinker. Avraham was supposed to do the very same work we are engaged in: building community, drawing in others, through friendship, not necessarily based upon theology but common humanity. Gedolah hachnasat orchim milekabel penei hashechina, it is greater to welcome in guests than to greet the very divine presence. Remember strangers in the ancient world were profoundly vulnerable. They had no protector and nowhere to turn. To bring in a guest was to express the deepest kind of empathy, even on your home turf to imagine yourself as homeless. Generations before the experience of slavery in Egypt, the central Jewish mitzvah, really before any other, is the commandment to open our homes, and ourselves up to the needs of the other.

And even for us, in an age where strangers can have constant access to instant communication and the Motel Six will leave the light on for you, the value of Hachnasat Orchim endures. We all benefit, not just from being welcomed when we need hospitality, but by opening our homes. Trust me. The experience of hosting others transforms a house, a living room, a yard, into a place of spiritual value. These rooms we build, these monster kitchens and the Great Rooms that are constructed regularly today, they are dying to be filled with others; those seeking and finding the bonds that unite us together. Gedolah hachnasat orchim milekabel penei hashechina, it is greater to welcome in guests than to greet the very divine presence.

You all have done this so beautifully this summer for Leah, Hani, Dore, Nili, Lavi and me. You have fed us. You have housed us. You have brought us into your lives. And to the dozen of you who have hosted parlor meetings, you have opened your homes to the community as well. You have been the staging ground for the great challenge before Temple Israel. To become the congregation, the community, that truly welcomes all comers. To be the place know for seeking God’s presence in prayer and study, yes. In davening and reflection, sure. But in being welcoming, above all. With arms open wide. We can be the shul of hachnasat orchim, from our private kitchens to our sacred, shared space. We are going to continue striving to engage in the kind of keruv, the kind of drawing people in, that will make everyone feel loved. Everyone will feel appreciated. And all of God’s creatures will feel valued. We may not all be able to read Torah at the drop of a hat. We may not all jump up when called upon to lead mincha. But we can become the synagogue known for this mitzvah. Everyone can do it, can follow in the lead of Avraham. Everyone can become a master of the spiritual art of welcoming in strangers. Even if you are a doubter, even if you are a skeptic, or can’t speak a word of Hebrew, this you can do. And it will transform your home, your family, our shul, and it will enrich us and make us all worthy to be true children of Abraham.

We may be swimming against a certain New England tide in this. People in our culture are used to space, to order, to privacy. I am all in favor of that, as far as it goes. But when we go from our secluded house to our private yard to our car with the windows up and air conditioning on, when we see kids going to school playing on their iPhones, watching videos in the car traveling from one place to another, we begin to put up so many walls that those things which unite us all begin to be lost. We all love the ease and accessibility internet, with the virtual communities it provides. Txting u instead of actually communicating. But these offer little in the way of real human connections when it comes to magic of actual human bonds. I was recently talking with someone who even told me that the traditional bonds of work places, where people gather around the water cooler and share their feelings, their thoughts and idea, even these are vanishing. IBM is moving toward having most of its employees work from home. This may be very appealing in many ways, but what is left of our connection with others if, in so many ways, we turn away from Avraham’s model. Rather than living with our flaps up, searching out others, the image which lends itself to the wedding Huppah, today we seem to be hiding ourselves away, further and further ensconced behind walls and barriers, dividing us into smaller and smaller boxes. I don’t believe Jewish life is possible as a series of virtual communities; I don’t think any kind of meaningful life at all can be lived without the real, flesh and blood connections between people which make life unpredictable, messy, and filled with joy.

When the community members of Berditchev came to invite Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to assume the position of rav, head rabbi, the saintly man had one request. "Please do not trouble me with communal meetings," he said. "However, if the meeting is about enacting a new ordinance, I would like to be involved." The agreement was made and much joy and celebration pervaded the city of Berdichev. It was no small matter to have the illustrious tzaddik, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak, accept the post of rav in their city.

Some time after the sage had donned the mantle of leadership, the community members appeared at the rabbi's door. "At tonight's meeting we would like to ordain a new regulation," they declared. Naturally, the rabbi agreed to attend the gathering.

In the elegant reception room where the members had gathered, the serious mood was laced with joy for the rabbi was present.

Then the formalities began. One member, a rather wealthy man, took the floor. "All of us here," he began, "are involved in important issues, each in our own way." His eyes scanned the faces around him, all wearing looks of obvious agreement.

"However," he continued. "The constant knocking on our doors by the numerous paupers that populate our town disturbs our peace and interrupts our busy schedules. Therefore, we would like to initiate a new ruling. From this time forth, it will be forbidden for a poor man to knock on doors. Certainly, we will keep in mind the needs of these unfortunate souls. We will not forsake them. But to make it more convenient for us, we will distribute to the paupers a sum of money each month which we will take from the community treasury."

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak suddenly rose from his chair, gathered his hat and jacket and began to leave. The others exchanged surprised looks with one another. "Is the Rabbi leaving?" they politely inquired.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak nodded.

"But… but the meeting has hardly begun," they protested.

Stunned silence reigned in the parlor. Silently, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak studied the expectant faces. "My brothers!" he said in a respectful tone of voice. "Did we not agree that I was not to be burdened with discussions of old policies?"

"Yes, yes, so we agreed," they cried out in unison. "But this is not old. What we're suggesting is a completely novel approach. By all means, this is a new regulation!"

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak sadly shook his head from side to side. "But this is nothing new," he said. "What you're proposing is an ancient law. As a matter of fact, this policy dates back thousands of years to the time of Sodom and Gomorra. They too instituted such laws. Forbidding people to distribute charity to itinerant beggars…" the rabbi sighed. "My brothers, no, there's nothing new about that…"

We are committed today to become true descendants of Avraham and Sarah. True inheritors of their legacy. I challenge everyone here to invite a family over for Shabbat, host a shul event in your home, just plan on having coffee together on a Sunday afternoon. So many of us have already been doing these things, and to you I say, Kol Hakavod. But for those who have been reticent, don’t worry. Start to open up the flaps on your tents and build the real bonds of community. And don’t worry about how neat, how perfect (or imperfect) your home is. Relax. If necessary, God will provide the ram.

Rabbi Ron Fish