Sandy, Parshat Vayera and the Kindness of Strangers

04 Nov

Shabbat shalom.

I want to welcome everyone to shul today, all our visitors those who are here for the bar mitzvah, and an equally warm welcome to those who are here because they have been displaced because of the storm. We all join you in hoping that any damage to your homes and neighborhoods is soon repaired and that you and your loved ones are safe and well.

I’d like to speak about the hurricane and what kind for a week it has been for our city and our region. The incredible destruction of so many neighborhoods, communities towns and cities within a few miles of here destroyed – people freezing, starving, in the dark – these are real human tragedies of a truly awful extent. To all those affected – those bereaved or injured, those whose lives have been devastated, those who have lost homes and businesses – our thoughts and tefillot (prayers) are with you.

It may have been Tennessee Williams who coined the phrase “The kindness of strangers”, but it is something we have seen played out in our streets and neighborhoods this past week, and something that without question has its roots in our parsha.

Possibly no parsha (portion) in the Torah focuses our thoughts on the importance of Chesed – acts of loving kindness – to a fellow human being, as the parsha of Vayera. Sometimes we wonder, in our secure world, why Chesed seems to matter. Doesn’t everyone we know have enough? Aren’t people in need, by definition, from different towns, neighborhoods, countries?

But we don’t think that anymore, and we understand why. Chesed has to be practiced, and perfected. It has to be a habit – because one day it’s going to be needed, badly.

Our parsha opens, famously, up with multiple acts of Chesed. Avraham is sitting at his tent awaiting guests (and we have seen, this week, what an unbelievable mitzvah, hachnasat orchim, hospitality of guests, is), but there’s another act of Chesed, too:

Vayera elav Hashem: Hashem appeared to Abraham.

This is bikur cholim, visiting the sick, says Rashi. Avraham is sick, he’s in pain, he’s had an operation, and he needs a visit. And I think there is an important lesson.

Avraham is a person who does Chesed, who does for other people. Suddenly, it’s not so easy for him. He’s ill. And Hashem comes to check up on him. Sometimes in life, even the biggest doer of Chesed is going to be on the receiving end. And that’s ok. It’s not easy – imagine what its like to be in a position where somebody comes to you and says: “I know you could use help.” He/she means well, but it hurts to take. I know there are many people in shul today who wish they were elsewhere. To a generous person, to suddenly need help, to be a guest, is so very difficult.

This week we were collecting and distributing clothes and blankets in shul. I got a call from a member who was volunteering in a shelter. A person had come by, a Jewish lady from the West Village. She had walked up town because she had no heat, no light, no power in her apartment – and it was getting cold. She needed blankets, and the shelter didn’t have any to provide. So he called the shul and he sent her over to us.

I met her in the ballroom, and I gave her a bagful of warm blankets. Then she asked, if, by any chance, there were any warm coats. I looked around and I found a zippered-up garment bag and I opened it. Inside there was
– and I don’t know if it was real or not but – a full-length, beautiful fur coat that somebody had donated. I gave it to her and she tried it own, and she started crying.

And I knew why she was crying. To suddenly find yourself needing a coat, wanting a coat from a clothing drive when you’ve never needed to take a penny from another person your whole life – I think I’d cry too. But whoever gave that coat (and chances are that it was somebody in this room) – what a mitzvah you did!

As the parsha opens, Avraham is being made to understand it’s not “them” and “us” – “we” who give, “them” who take. You never know, and you have to know, what it’s going to feel like to need to have to accept Chesed.

Avraham Avinu is the one who teaches the world the importance of Hachnasat Orchim, hospitality to strangers: a meal, a place to wash. It’s something that we have seen all over the region, and it’s something we have seen in our neighborhood (thankfully spared so much trauma): people opening up their homes to guests, strangers.

But then comes one of the most challenging stories of the chumash. The destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, the five cities of the plane. In previous years I have make a joke about Hashem destroying the 5 towns … but this year it isn’t funny at all. Indeed just the opposite. In the coming weeks we will hear more and more of the
stories to come out from communities like the 5 towns, of people who have lost so much, who are helping neighbors, friends, strangers. (I saw a picture of a prayer service, a minyan and Torah reading, in a shul with no
power.) More and more stories of fortitude, Chesed and, yes, heroism are gradually emerging. But amidst the story of destruction (that seems eerily familiar from this week’s events) is Avraham’s reaction. Avraham,of course, pleads for the people – whoever they are. They stand for the opposite of what he does – he is good, they are bad, very bad people. But Avraham asks for them to be saved. And he does it without bias.

Yesterday we were filling up a car outside shul. (A member of the shul kindly volunteered to drive some bags of much needed coats, blankets, toys and clothes to a shelter.) A few wonderful volunteers and staff members (amongst them our bar mitzvah boy, Alexander, were loading the car. And a Jewish couple stopped outside to see what was going on, and I started to talk to them. They were from outside the city and had no power. I explained what the bags were, and where they were going. He asked me if there were Jews in the shelters (really, more a question of clarification than anything else). I answered by saying, when Avraham asked for Sodom and the other cities to be saved, he didn’t say: “Sodom? I have mishpacha, family, there. There are Jews  there, save them.” Instead he said: “Hashem, please don’t destroy them – any of them.”

Avraham Avinu never discriminated in his Chesed, neither should we. Of course, as Jews, we are going to help our fellow Jews rebuild their lives and communities, but we are not going to limit our aid to the Jewish community.

What happened after the destruction is very relevant too:

וישכם אברהם, בבוקר:  אל-המקום–אשר-עמד שם, את-פני יהוה

“And Avraham rose early in the morning, to the place he had stood, before G-d”

From here we learn that Avraham invented Shacharit, morning prayers, but Sforno points out that it also means that Avraham, even after the decree, never stopped davening, praying. He stood there praying for the people, hoping that some would be spared, and looking out for any possible survivor, anyone who he could aid.

Our parsha continues in this theme, that even as Avraham grew in stature and importance, he never stopped practicing Chesed. Even when he was a man making treaties with the king and involved in important matters, we read:

וייטע אשל, בבאר שבע

And Avraham planted an eshel in Beersheba.

What is eshel? The rabbis say it means he planted a place of Chesed. Treating אשל as an acrostic, the letters can stand for: achilah shtia lina: a place to eat, drink and sleep. He though of people’s needs and he provided it for them.

And that is the incredible thing about Chesed, and something we all have to focus on in the coming weeks. You have to think about what the other person needs. One of the most reported stories from the “dark zone”, lower
Manhattan, is about people needing a place to charge a cell phone. A person may think that Chesed is about
blankets or food or water but, if you need power to charge a cellphone, providing that is Chesed, too.

I want to say I am so proud of the response of our community, spearheaded by our youth department. At our emergency clothing drive we filled at least 150 big black bags full of toys, games, coats, blankets and clothes. Our youth director Ben reported what it was like at a shelter on 49thst where he saw kids who hadn’t changed their clothes since Sunday. We were able to deliver dozens of bags of clothes – your kids clothes are being worn by someone who really needs them.

Finally, at the end of the parsha, comes the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac. Hashem commands Avraham
to take his child, his beloved child Isaac, and offer him up as a sacrifice. Avraham learnt something very profound that moment. His job is not to question, to seek to understand. G-d runs the world, and he makes the wind blow and the rain fall. Things happen at His will that we can’t begin to understand. When Avraham is
asked to do the unthinkable, he understands that his test (which is our test, too) is to live with faith even when we see things that we can’t possibly reconcile with what we think should be. He doesn’t complain or criticize, because he knows that what he thinks doesn’t count. This week I’ve already heard at least a dozen explanations of why the hurricane happened: bitul torah (neglect of Torah study), failure to observe Mikvah (family purity), tsnius (lack of modesty), gay marriage, lack of support for Israel, etc. I am always amazed that people always know why these things happen, and it’s always a lesson for other people. It always conforms to the world view of the person speaking.

But that’s wrong. It’s very wrong, and it was never Abraham’s way. His response was not “why did this happen?”, but rather “what can I do?”

That is the most profound of Jewish lessons.

Remember the beginning of the parshaAvraham is in the middle of aconversation with G-d, and he sees strangers coming to his tent. He turns to G-d and says: “Wait. There is something more important that I have to
do”. And everyone asks, how could he do that? Why would he do it? Sure, he wanted to do a mitzvah, hospitality, but he was already doing a mitzvah! He was talking to G-d!  What could be more important?

Do you know what is holier than talking to G-d? What is it that makes you even closer to G-d than having a conversation with Him?

Answer (And I learned this from one of my students): Acting like him. Not to be G-d, but to be G-dly. Not to try to understand G-d, explain G-d’s ways, or to call yourself a prophet. What is even holier than speaking to G-d is being like G-d, resembling Him, doing deeds of Chesed.

Running to the guests meant he was running towards G-d – closer and closer to what G-d wanted of him (rather than standing still and talking to G-d.)

Hashem doesn’t need us to be G-d, he needs us to be G-dly. To feed, clothe, offer a shoulder, or
a bed, or a power outlet, or a shower, or a coat, to people who suddenly find themselves without these things. These are not the little things, the small details, these are the pinnacle of what a human being can become.


3 responses to “Sandy, Parshat Vayera and the Kindness of Strangers

  1. Shy

    November 4, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    Rabbi – your words are inspiring and motivating. Thank you.


  2. Phil Landsberg

    November 4, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    Inspiring and thought provoking as always.


  3. George Frankel

    November 5, 2012 at 3:02 pm

    God sent the storm. So when we practice chessed we are not being “godly” (or even “G-dly”); we are being fully human, which in my opinion is even greater!

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