A Visit to Abraham: How to Speak with
As America gets more entangled in the bottomless
quagmire called the Middle East, perhaps its time to revisit
Abraham, father of Ishmael and father of nations, for some wise
No matter how we try to analyze world events,
particularly as they have rocked America since September 11,
they remain a total mystery. What is the purpose and nature
of our involvement and interests in Iraq? How and what will
it take to get out of this chaos? Whether you agree or disagree
with the administrations Iraq policy, no one argues the
fact that we are engaged in a formidable confrontation with
the Arab/Muslim world.
And lest we forget: What about Israel when
and how will it ever end?
What connection does Abraham have to all of this?
Well, you can say that he got us into this mess in the first
place. Had Abraham not taken his now famous trek (lech
lecho) to Israel 3741 years ago, the entire modern landscape
of the Middle East would have never taken shape.
Abraham is also the father of Ishmael and Isaac,
the ancestors of the Arab and Jewish worlds respectively, and
grandfather of Esau, forbearer of the Western/Roman/Christian
If nothing else, to spend some time with Abraham
is simply refreshing for his profound courage, his fierce independence and
his deeply personal relationship with G-d.
In this weeks Torah portion in particular
we find some fascinating interactions between Abraham and G-d
that have much to teach us today, with powerful contemporary
At the outset of this weeks story, G-d appears
to Abraham as he his healing from his circumcision. [We derive
from this the mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim].
This is the first time in history that G-d makes such an appearance,
so you can imagine that it is quite a momentous occasion.
[For the record, G-ds appearance
as all such references in the Torah should not be understood
in anthropomorphic terms. Divine revelation is an experience
from within. G-d is the essence of Reality, and as such G-d
exists within all. G-d appeared means that this
Essence expressed itself in some way that Abraham experienced
it just as we would experience someone appearing before us].
But something strange happens during this Divine
visit. Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three strangers.
They appear to him as nomads traveling in the desert. What does
Abraham do? He turns away from G-d to greet and welcome these
men as guests in his home.
The Talmud derives from this that welcoming
guests is greater than welcoming G-d, because Abraham
turned away from G-d to greet the guests (Shabbat 127a).
Beautiful lesson. But the question is this: We
derive the power of greeting guests from Abrahams behavior.
But how did Abraham know? How did he have the right, even the
chutzpah, to turn away from G-d to greet guests?! Even if a
plain mortal were to come visit you when you were ill, it would
be quite rude to turn away from your visitor to greet other
guests! Let alone when the visitor is G-d, making
a rare, first-time appearance!
And in general: Why is greeting guests greater
than greeting G-d?
Clearly, Abraham the man of G-d, understood something
deeper. What he understood was that ignoring wandering strangers
is in effect ignoring G-d in the deepest way. Because if you
love G-d then you must love what G-d loves, namely His creatures.
Had Abraham ignored the nomads, one could argue that it was
due not to Abrahams respect for G-d, but perhaps to religious
As a young man the Rebbe Dovber was once so immersed
in his studies that he did not hear a crying child in the other
room. He was later rebuked by his father, Rabbi Schneur Zalman
(the author of the Tanya and Shulchan Aruch) for not hearing
the childs cry. As immersed as someone may be in Torah
study or prayer, one has to never ignore the cry of a child,
and has to turn away from his religious activity to help another
In other words: Welcoming guests is
welcoming G-d in a greater way than welcoming G-d directly.
Any religious or spiritual experience has to always make a person
more refined and sensitive to other people.
Imagine if we would all apply this to our lives
today, how different the world would be.
I once had a discussion with a charedi
friend of mine (charedi is a Hebrew word used to
describe ultra-observant Jews in Israel) about the deep rift
between charedim and chilonim (secular).
I suggested to him to encourage each of his colleagues to invite
a chiloni to his Shabbat table as a guest. He laughed
and told me: It will never happen. Too much distrust;
too much divisiveness. How sad, how pathetic. 60 years
ago we would have all been lying in the same bunkers
Imagine if every devout Jew would
invite to his/her Shabbat table a secular neighbor, instead
of deriding him, how our landscape would be different
Nu, a sheine machshoveh, as they say in
Yiddish (a nice thought)
Divisiveness in general, especially Jewish divisiveness
is the root of all problems. No enemy can attack a house united.
A bit later in this weeks portion, in the
story of Sodoms destruction, we find two amazing statements
from G-d, that teach us much about the mystery of G-ds
relationship with us.
G-d said: Shall I hide from Abraham what
I am going to do [destroy Sodom]?
G-d [then] said: The outcry against Sodom
is so great, and their sin is so very grave. I will descend
and see if they have done everything implied by the outcry that
is coming before Me. If not, I will know.
I always marvel at the first verse. Rarely do
we find G-d speaking in such vulnerable terms. G-d
is being apologetic and wondering whether He can hide from Abraham
His plan to destroy Sodom!
First of all, even if G-d thought so, why are
we told about it, especially considering the fact that G-d does
reveal His plan to Abraham. So whats the point of telling
us about G-ds personal deliberations?
Secondly, what is the substance of G-ds
doubt and deliberation? Why should He not share His plan with
Abraham in the first place? And why did He choose to then tell
I once heard that the reason some great Rebbes
did not warn the Jews before the Holocaust was because G-d did
not reveal to them what would happen. Had He revealed it to
them, they could have intervened and not allowed it to happen.
I know that this will surely provoke controversy.
Nevertheless, I must share with you a story regarding this issue.
Several years ago I traveled to Australia on a speaking tour.
I spent two weeks lecturing in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and
Surfers Paradise [sic]. Upon my arrival, my host Rabbi Reisenberg,
shared with me the following story:
He knew a prominent journalist in Australia, a
self-proclaimed atheist. The rabbi gave him a copy of my book,
Toward A Meaningful Life. To Rabbi Reisenbergs surprise,
the journalist tells him a while later that he loves the book.
He actually holds it at his bedside and reads from it nightly.
The rabbi asked him: So now, do you believe in G-d?
The journalist replied: Let me put it this way. If G-d
was like the Rebbe I would believe in Him!
I happened to meet the journalist in Sydney, when
he attended a Friday brunch at which I spoke. From our conversation
I realized who he was. So I asked him: So, how do you
know that G-d is not like the Rebbe? His reply took my
breath away: Believe me, I know. After a short,
painful pause, he continued: I know because the Rebbe
would never have allowed the Holocaust
Oh yes, the Holocaust is a formidable challenge
to our generation. Perhaps like no other. And I dont mean
in academic terms, but in stark emotional ones.
-- I remember a young smart aleck arrogantly arguing
how the Holocaust does not allow us to believe in G-d. A Holocaust
survivor stood up and looked keenly at the young man and said:
Well, I do believe in G-d even after the Holocaust. Indeed,
if the Holocaust teaches us anything is that we cannot believe
in man; we have no one else to trust except G-d.
It is always repulsive to hear someone who just
came out of his diapers (or should I say, designer
pampers) use human tragedy as an excuse or an explanation for
his/her beliefs and behavior. Holocaust survivors, and for that
matter survivors of any loss, are in a class of their own. Whether
their experience brings them to doubt or to belief is their
sacred right between them and G-d. It is simple arrogance and
outright abuse to enter that sacred space and judge people like
that, no matter their position. They stand before G-d like no
others have a right to.
Perhaps this is what G-d was debating with Himself
and chose to share it with us when He considered
whether He should hide from Abraham what he was going to do.
G-d has a personal relationship, a partnership
with the human race. As difficult as it is for G-d to witness
human atrocity, it must be even more difficult for Him to take
away our free will, for if He did, all of existence may as well
come to a stop.
Yes, G-d has bound Himself to us in some mysterious,
inexplicable way. We can change the course of destiny, even
This is the essence of prayer: We pray to G-d
to change destiny. A person may be lying ill (G-d forbid), and
we pray that G-d heal the person. Isnt that chutzpah?
Shouldnt faith dictate that we accept G-ds plan,
whether we like it or not? No, that is not faith. Faith is the
belief in G-d and, as such, the partnership between G-d and
the human race. When we see pain we must cry out, not because
we are weak, but because we are dynamic partners in the drama
of life. We must pray and do everything possible to remedy the
situation. Yehi rotzon we say may it be Your
will, we have the power to create/elicit a new Divine
will and decree.
How much more so a tzaddik, who has the power
of tzaddik gozer Haokodesh Boruch Hu Mikayem, G-d
fulfills the decree of a tzaddik, and beyond that: Hakodesh
Boruch Hu gozer, tzaddik mevatel, a tzaddik can abolish
Fully knowing that, G-d wonders whether He should
reveal to Abraham His plan for Sodom. G-d knows that Abraham
will challenge the decree and has the power to stop it. Abraham
indeed challenges G-d, as the chapter continues in one of the
most dramatic dialogues in history between a man of faith and
Yet, G-d decides that He will reveal it to Abraham,
and let the drama begin
This is also the meaning of the second verse:
The outcry against Sodom is so great, and their sin is
so very grave. I will descend and see if they have done everything
implied by the outcry that is coming before Me. If not, I will
This verse is the basis of one of the most fundamental
theological concepts in understanding the nature of G-d (as
discussed in the most complex Chassidic discourses on this verse).
The question is asked: Why does an omnipresent G-d have to descend
to see whether Sodom has sinned?
Which leads us to the real question: Does G-d
exist within our pain and suffering, or does He remain aloof,
beyond it all?
The complex answer in brief: As transcendent as
G-d inherently is of all experience, G-d chose to descend
and engage Himself with existence as we know it, He chose to
relate to and enter within our human experience.
He does so by means of the spiritual spheres (sefirot)
and the spiritual worlds of the cosmic order.
But tension remains. Tension between the two
realities: the perspective from above (daas elyon),
seeing things from the transcendent dimension, and the perspective
from below, from the inside (of experience) out
(daas tachton). Resolving this tension integrating
both perspectives is the true story of life, the ultimate
purpose of existence.
We are thus told of G-ds dilemma:
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am going to do.
Both attitudes are legitimate. From the perspective above, perhaps
Abraham does not need to be privy to G-ds plans. But then
G-d chooses to not hide them from him, and reveal them to the
perspective below, and engage Abraham in a Divine/human dialogue.
[Indeed, this may also be the choice that Abraham
had to make when he saw the nomads in the hot desert: To remain
with G-d, in G-ds world, or to enter into
the world below and greet the guests. He chooses the latter,
welcoming guests, which is greater than greeting G-d].
So, the challenge of pain and loss and
our endless debate on the topic is actually meant to
provoke a dialogue with G-d about our partnership. This is our
right, indeed our responsibility not to remain silent,
but to engage G-d in the process.
This also sets the stage for the next dramatic
event the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, in which we
witness again the tension between heaven and earth, and Abraham
is faced with the choice between Divine love and human love.
But we are left with no time and space to continue. But I
can refer you to my article of last year, Kill
Me A Son.
We owe Abraham many tributes, not least among
them the tribute of providing us with language to speak to G-d.
If we ever have to challenge G-d we dont need to create
our own words; just use the words of Abraham, and youll
have all the words you need.
Most of us read daily newspapers and weekly magazines.
We follow current events in the news. We have many sources of
By contrast, the story of Abraham took place 3766
Tell me which is more relevant today?