Vayera: Religious Selfishness


A Visit to Abraham: How to Speak with G-d

As America gets more entangled in the bottomless quagmire called the Middle East, perhaps it’s time to revisit Abraham, father of Ishmael and father of nations, for some wise counsel.

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 administration’s 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 world.

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 week’s Torah portion in particular we find some fascinating interactions between Abraham and G-d that have much to teach us today, with powerful contemporary applications.

Religious Arrogance/Selfishness

At the outset of this week’s 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-d’s 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].

What does Abraham do? He turns away from G-d to greet and welcome these men as guests in his home.

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 Abraham’s 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 Abraham’s respect for G-d, but perhaps to “religious selfishness.”

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 child’s 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 person.

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… G-d forbid.

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)…

No enemy can attack a house united.

Divisiveness in general, especially Jewish divisiveness is the root of all problems. No enemy can attack a house united.

Divine Secrets/Mysteries

A bit later in this week’s portion, in the story of Sodom’s destruction, we find two amazing statements from G-d, that teach us much about the mystery of G-d’s 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 what’s the point of telling us about G-d’s “personal” deliberations?

Secondly, what is the substance of G-d’s doubt and deliberation? Why should He not share His plan with Abraham in the first place? And why did He choose to then tell him?

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 Reisenberg’s 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”…

I gulped…

Oh yes, the Holocaust is a formidable challenge to our generation. Perhaps like no other. And I don’t 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 for G-d.

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. Isn’t that chutzpah? Shouldn’t faith dictate that we accept G-d’s 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 G-d’s decree!

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 G-d.

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 know.”

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?

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-d’s “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-d’s 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-d’s “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 don’t need to create our own words; just use the words of Abraham, and you’ll 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 information today.

By contrast, the story of Abraham took place 3766 years ago.

Tell me which is more relevant today?


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17 years ago

ilove your site.

17 years ago

I just read your article. How profound. I am an observant Jew who broke Shabbos to DRIVE to see about Jewish friend (Conservative) who was hosting in the local Conservative Synagogue a Senior Shabbat and felt that HaShem would not be disappointed in me for seeing her, for this is the most important thing to her after the death of her very dear husband. I believe that HaShem commands us to see to grieving widows more than keeping Shabbos. I did this only once, and I do not regret this. Your article has only served to help me know I made the right decision that Shabbos. Thank You ever so much!!!!

10 years ago

What of the haredi who will not visit their hiloni relative because the hilonis home is not kosher enough? Or the haredi who forcibly and without permission kashers his mothers home?

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