Archive for the ‘Slavery in Egypt’ category

Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

Advertisements

HACHNASAT ORCHIM: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Virtue

October 28, 2010






The Torah portion, Vayera (GENESIS 18:1-22:24), is one of those wonderful sections that is simply chock full of powerful stories and lessons.  It tells of how Abraham and Sarah received the news that in their old age, Sarah would finally bear a child.  It tells of how, when God revealed to Abraham the Divine plan to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham actually argued with God on their behalf.  It then goes on to tell of how those cities were destroyed because they did not merit Abraham’s defense of them.  It tells of what happened to Lot and his daughters after their escape from Sodom.  It tells of the birth of Isaac.  It tells of how Sarah, fearing for Isaac’s safety, forced Abraham to send away his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, the handmaid, Hagar.  It then goes on to tell of how Hagar and Ishmael almost died of thirst in the wilderness but instead, God saved them and promised to make Ishmael a great nation.  It tells that most famous account – the one we read on Rosh Hashanah morning – in which God tested Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  Yes, this particular Torah portion offers us much to consider, study, and discuss.  It is a treasure trove of important lessons.

Tonight I wish to focus our attention on just one of the stories – one of the lessons – from our Torah portion.  It is one I have yet to mention.  It is the account of how Abraham and Sarah were visited by three angels, and how they received them.  According to the Torah text, Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he noticed three strangers approaching.  They were angels, but he did not know that at the time.  As soon as he saw them, he jumped up and ran to greet them, offering them the hospitality of his home.  Though he had no idea of who they were, still he bowed down before them and treated them as nobility, calling them “My lords.”  He offered them a little food and then provided them with a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk.

The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash saw this story as being a very important one when it comes to Jewish life.  They spoke about it extensively, and from it they derived one of Judaism’s most time honored and practiced virtues; the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – the virtue of welcoming the stranger; of offering hospitality.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, asked, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?”  His answer was that he did so in order to see if any strangers were approaching so that he could welcome them as soon as possible.  The Midrash goes further in saying that Abraham would pitch is tent at a crossroads and then raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see if any travelers were approaching from any direction.  Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.

There is another midrash which is very telling and very powerful.  It centers on the question of who was deserving of Abraham’s hospitality.  According to this midrash, one of the many travelers who Abraham welcomed into his tent was an old man.  This old man was happy to accept all that Abraham offered.  After he had bathed, and rested, and had eaten a luscious meal, he opened his pack, took out his collection of idols, and started to pray to them.  Witnessing this, Abraham was quite distressed.  “What do you think you are doing?” he shouted at the old man.  The old man simply replied, “I am offering my thanks to my gods for such good fortune.”  “But,” Abraham stuttered and stammered in rage, “your gods did not provide this food and drink and shelter and respite for you.  My God provided it and it is to my God – the One God – that you should be offering your prayers of gratitude.”  “You are wrong,” replied the old man.  “While I was traveling down the road, I prayed to my gods to lead me to a place were I could find food and drink and shelter and rest, and they led me here.  They answered my prayers and it is to them that I should be grateful.”  Well Abraham would have none of this, and in his outrage, he kicked the old man out of his tent and sent him on his way.  Shortly afterwards, God called to Abraham and asked, “Where is the old man?”  Abraham then shared with God what had happened as well as his anger and frustration at how, after receiving all that bounty, the old man still rejected God in favor of his idols.  To this, God rebuked Abraham saying, “For all these years, I have taken care of that old man.  Now you have the audacity to toss him out?  If his idol worship has not bothered me, why should it bother you?”  Hearing this, Abraham was greatly ashamed, and in his shame, he rushed down the road in search of the old man.  When he found him, he apologized, sought his forgiveness, and he invited him to return to his tent and to his hospitality.

Why were the rabbis so fixated on this Torah story?  Why were they so fixated on this matter of hospitality; of welcoming the stranger?  Perhaps it was because of another statement that appears and reappears throughout the Torah, that statement being, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Torah is constantly concerned about the well being of the stranger, and therefore so were the rabbis.  That concern is based upon the fact that of all people, we as Jews should know what it feels like, and what it means, to be a stranger.  We know what it is like to be on the outside, looking in.  We know what it is like to sometimes feel excluded or ignored or  evenworse, and we do not like it.

If we do not like being the stranger – if we do not like being treated that way; as somehow less than others – then from our unpleasant experiences we should learn to do better and to be better when we find the tables reversed; when we are the hosts and others are the strangers.  If we do not like to be made to feel unwelcome, then it is incumbent upon us to go out of our way to welcome others.  And, as the midrash about the old man instructs, it should not matter whether or not we agree with those others.  It should not matter whether or not they are like us or dramatically different from us.  For in the end, as different as we may be, they, like us, are still God’s children and should be treated accordingly.

Our rabbis were truly wise because while they understood that this issue of how we treat strangers most certainly has societal, national, and international dimensions – it impacts such issues as how do we as Americans treat immigrants, both of the legal and illegal variety, and how do Israelis in the Jewish state treat the non-Jews residing in their midst – if we are ever to effectively address such issues properly, we must start our efforts, not so much on the big scale but rather on the small scale, the intimate scale, the personal scale.  The rabbis clearly understood that if we ever want our society to be welcoming to the strangers in its midst, then we have start by building homes that are welcoming to strangers.  That if we start by promoting this virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – of welcoming the stranger – on a family level then surely it eventually will take hold on a societal level.

The rabbis understood that we need to turn to Abraham as a model of personal behavior.  Abraham lived a world that was not very welcoming.  Twice – once in this week’s Torah portion – Abraham and Sarah found themselves in foreign lands where they were so unwelcome that if they did not conceal the fact that they were married, Abraham most likely would have been murdered by lecherous rulers.  Yet, even so, Abraham decided that his world was going to be different.  His home would be a place in which strangers would feel welcomed rather than afraid.  Therefore, as Abraham’s home was welcoming to strangers, so should every Jewish home be welcoming to strangers.  There should always be at least one seat open for guests at our Shabbat dinner table.  Guests should always welcomed to the Passover Seder, even as we begin that service by stating, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”  Nor should we consider these seats to be reserved for people we know.  Rather, when it comes to this, it is the stranger who should enjoy priority seating.

As we welcome strangers into our homes, so should we, as Jews, welcome strangers into our synagogues.  When we see someone we do not know, we should feel it to be our obligation to approach that person, introduce ourselves and help them to feel at home among us.  I am sure that there are among us tonight those who have found themselves in other communities on Shabbat or on holidays.  There are those who, while in those communities, have gone to local synagogues.  In some of those synagogues, we felt left out in the cold.  We were alone, and no one even acknowledged our presence.  It was as if we were not there.  And after the service, we left the building feeling worse than empty; feeling somehow wounded.  Then there are those who, finding themselves in a similar situation, entered synagogues in which people approached them, welcomed them, wanted to get to know them, and tried to make them feel at home.  And that felt great!  The point being that Hachnasat Orchim may start in our homes but should naturally flow into our synagogues.

But in the end, Hachnasat Orchim need not exclusively be a Jewish value, practiced solely in Jewish venues.  As we incorporate this virtue into our lives, ideally it should become a part of our daily lives, no matter where we are and no matter who we are with.  And then, hopefully, it will grow in our hearts to the point where we come to understand that our communities, our states, our nation, and even our world are but extensions of our homes, and as such should be havens in which strangers as well as natives should feel welcomed and safe.