Tag Archives: Vayyera

Welcoming Ourselves, or, the Stranger Within – Vayyera 5778

This is a parashah that is chock full of good material, but I must concede that the episode to which I always return is the story in the beginning of Vayyera where Avraham welcomes a trio of traveling strangers into his tent. He runs to greet them. He brings them water to drink and to wash the dust off their feet. He brings them food. He literally waits on them.

Avraham Avinu the father of our tradition and our people, the progenitor of the entire monotheistic world, the one whom we invoke at the beginning of every Amidah – teaches us to welcome the stranger. Yes, we know that they are angels, but Avraham does not. He sees unfamiliar people walking by, and he reaches out and grabs ’em.

Now how do you think that makes the visitors feel? The Torah does not record their reactions, but I can tell you this: when I have been a stranger in a strange land, I am always grateful for the help and care of locals. The postal clerk in Jodhpur, India, who not only sold Judy and me stamps, but also took us into a back room of the post office to give us a table on which to write our postcards, supplied us with glue (which apparently Indian stamps lack), and even gave us his address so that we could stay with him if we ever returned to Jodhpur. The nice gentleman who stopped to help me fix a flat by the side of a highway late at night in a rural part of upstate New York, and even offered me a sandwich. The Israeli Bedouin who invited a friend and me, while we were hiking near the desert town of Arad, to actually sit with him in his tent and drink water and tea and to schmooze with him in Hebrew.

Bedouin Tent Wiki images

(As an aside, tomorrow is our annual New Members’ Welcoming Ceremony, when we invite in those who have joined our community within the last year, bring them up onto this bimah, discuss what brought them all here, and give everybody a sefer Torah to hold while we recite Tefillat HaDerekh, the prayer for those who are starting a new journey.)

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks back when I read an article in the New York Times Magazine about anxiety. Apparently, we are living in a time in which there are more and more people, and particularly teens, who are living with severe anxiety. The article cites statistics about the growing rates of anxiety; about a third of adolescents and adults live suffer from an anxiety disorder. Almost two-thirds of university undergraduates report feeling “overwhelming anxiety” in the prior year.

Man at bridge holding head with hands and screaming

Perhaps you know somebody like this – I do. Anxiety is a very serious disorder. While we all have moments of anxiety, for most of us they pass. But for people with disorders like this, life is a daily challenge of trying to manage one’s constant fears.

Nobody knows, of course, what causes anxiety, or why the rates are increasing. But we all know the contemporary exacerbating factors: things like the pressure that high-achieving teens feel in school, our addiction to social media, threats of terrorism, and so forth. You might think that privileged teens would have lower rates; actually, rates are higher among the affluent

Left untreated, anxiety does not go away. But there is a disagreement about how to treat it: some say that the way to reduce anxiety is to remove the stressors; some say that greater exposure to the things that arouse their fears helps the anxious person learn to cope.

But I am going to suggest a different approach.

Now, I am not a psychologist, and in no way is it my intent to trivialize this challenge by glibly offering ancient words to soothe the contemporary soul.

But as one who can speak from personal experience, that third way is the framework of Jewish tradition.

What does Judaism offer? What is that framework?

Family togetherness, a holy purpose to life, communal support in times of joy and grief and everything in-between, slowing down for Shabbat and relating to others, the critical thinking that comes from talmud torah, learning our ancient wisdom – these are all things that give us a healthy framework, one that might help us feel more grounded, more connected, less anxious.

And here is the final thing that our tradition offers, and this comes back to Avraham’s welcoming the wayfarers into his tent. Judaism reminds us that we must not only welcome the stranger, but that we also must welcome ourselves in.

What on Earth do you mean by that, Rabbi?

Most of us have a fairly lukewarm relationship with our tradition. That is, we are tentative about entering too deeply into the actions, about throwing ourselves bodily into our customs and rituals. I mentioned this briefly a few weeks back, on Shemini Atzeret. Most of us like to maintain our reserve, our cool, academic distance from the curious customs that we have inherited from our ancient ancestors.

In the middle of the 20th century, changes in our society led to a revolt against the old order. Some of the ways in which our society changed were good: the struggles for civil rights and the equality of women and men, the breaking down of many traditional barriers.

But the baby went out with the bathwater. For most of us, the framework that religion provided disappeared. Many of us grew up thinking that people who were committed to religious tradition were unthinking sheep. Dr. Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, documents the distancing from Judaism by the Baby Boom generation in particular in his book with Steven M. Cohen, The Jew Within. They discuss the elevation of the “sovereign self” in place of traditional religious involvement.

As a result, there are many of us today who are not quite sure of what to do in the synagogue – how to behave, when to stand up or sit down; many of us wonder how on earth the person leading services could possibly have gotten to the bottom of the page so fast. And all the more so with Jewish traditions that we practice outside the synagogue.

But engaging with our tradition, “practicing” Judaism, is not merely about being an expert davener, or fulfilling every iota of Jewish law and custom. It is about all the meaningful aspects of holy living: the primary mitzvah of engaging with our holy texts, through which we learn to acknowledge the holiness in all our relationships, maintaining our sense of wonder and gratitude about the world.

And, rather than think you may not be “good” at “doing Jewish” because you can’t mumble the second paragraph of Aleinu fast enough, think instead about this: Have you, over the past week, say, done something to bring honor to somebody around you? Did you teach your child the value of doing charitable work? Did you help resolve a conflict between friends or neighbors? Did you spend an unhurried, pleasurable meal with your family? Have you thought twice before uttering an unkind word?

If so, welcome. Welcome yourself to our tradition, to that framework. We’re glad to have you aboard. And we need you to welcome yourself, because those who have not welcomed themselves in, who have not actually opened the metaphorical door of Jewish life and walked through it, cannot really welcome others.

Structure of Welcome Emails

Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, goes out of his way to welcome strangers into his tent. And when these same strangers, who we know to be divine messengers, give the news to his wife Sarah that she will give birth to a son at age 90, she laughs. Was it anxious laughter? Perhaps.

Maybe she was not quite ready for the news. Or maybe she was not ready to welcome the strangers in, because she had not yet welcomed herself.

A final note: on Thursday, I attended an interfaith program for clergy and community leaders at the JCC, entitled “Faithful Responses to Strangers, Immigrants, and Refugees.” One of the speakers, a Muslim woman who immigrated to Pittsburgh from Sudan, spoke about her experience in getting to know her neighbors. They were not forthcoming in introducing themselves, so she hatched the plan of inviting herself over to their houses to get to know them. Her friends said, “No, you can’t do that. Americans don’t do that.” But she ignored them, and more or less went door-to-door, welcoming herself into her neighbors’ homes – really the opposite of what Abraham did. And it worked! She is now very close with her neighbors, none of whom are like her, and prouder than ever to be an American.

Don’t be a stranger! Open the door, and welcome yourself into our tradition. Be a part of our framework. It’s a gift that you can give yourself and your family. You’ll be glad you did.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, November 4, 2017.)

 

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Welcoming Brokenness – Vayyera 5777

I had a wonderful moment last week. It was the moment when this sermon came together. It was on Wednesday, my day off, and I was actually on the elliptical machine at the JCC (I sometimes do my best thinking when I’m working out). I was listening to Leonard Cohen (zikhrono livrakhah – may his memory be for a blessing), to his song “Take This Waltz,” from his 1988 album, I’m Your Man. The song is actually a loose English translation of the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem, Pequeño vals vienés, (a little Viennese waltz):

Now in Vienna there are ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry
There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost

Ay, Ay-ay-ay
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

This song speaks of the pain of love, the fragile beauty of life, the infinite transience of the human experience. It makes me yearn: for desire and loss, for happiness and grief, for perfection and failure, the whole continuum of what it means to be benei Adam, the descendants of Adam and Eve.

Photos | The Official Leonard Cohen Site

Leonard Cohen passed away nearly two weeks ago; he was suffering from cancer, although a statement released by his manager on Wednesday said that he had taken a fall in the night which hastened his death. His oeuvre – songs, poems, prose – speaks of all of the yearnings that make our lives meaningful and rich and sad and joyous.

Now if you have been listening to me speak over the past year and change, you may have noticed that I constantly talk about making Judaism meaningful – that our task as a synagogue and indeed as a community is to create meaning in a Jewish context. And let’s face it: this is not easy.

What is it about synagogue services that is meaningful? Here are some possibilities:

  • Prayer
  • Meditative moments
  • Reading the Torah
  • Learning
  • Community
  • Singing

But what about for people who don’t know how to pray, or do not understand Hebrew, or are unfamiliar with the Torah, or do not know anybody in the room? How will they derive meaning from what we do? What about visitors who have never been in a synagogue before? What about guests or even members of the congregation who are not Jewish? Do we want them to have a meaningful experience as well?

The answer is yes. Yes, we want everybody who enters here to appreciate what we do and how it might elevate us.

Synagogues tend to run on momentum – the momentum of “this is what we do; this is how we do it.” We have done things this way for a long time, such a long time that many of us who do it regularly cannot imagine doing it any other way, and that we have difficulty imagining that some might not appreciate it or know what to do. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, has made a career of helping synagogues improve themselves by trying to make members appreciate what it’s like to those who are not “insiders.” He tells the story of the uncle of a bar mitzvah, who is called to the Torah, and he’s really nervous because he hasn’t done this in a long time. So the gabbai, trying to help him out, says to him in an undertone, “Now kiss your tzitzis.” The man is taken aback and reacts audibly, so that the whole congregation can hear, by exclaiming, “Kiss my WHAT?”

We, the synagogue regulars, often fall into the trap of assuming that everybody knows or understands what we do and why we do it. But that is, of course, far from the truth. On the contrary: even some of us who are regulars do not know what we do or why we do it. (That’s why I am offering a learners’ service once a month, starting in three weeks – the third Shabbat morning of each month.)

But one thing that should draw people to synagogues, whether they know the service or not, is the human desire to seek wholeness, to seek healing of the soul. There is no heart that is as whole, said Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, as a broken heart. That is one reason that our siddur is called Lev Shalem, a whole heart – because we enter tefillah broken-hearted with the intent to make it whole again.

We all know that this is a fractured world, one in which hopes are easily crushed, where idealism is squelched, where we sometimes find pain when we look for solace. And sometimes, when we are truly in adversity, those are the times we need God the most, however we understand God. And we want all who enter this space, regardless of their familiarity with Jewish ritual, to feel that they can satisfy this need here.

Every now and then, those solace-seekers come into a synagogue seeking to mollify the pain. And here’s the message for the day: we have to welcome them in. We have to embrace all who enter so that they may find comfort. We have to go out of our way to make this sanctuary, this respite from the cruel world that awaits outside, a place of warmth and inclusiveness and caring.

Our synagogue happens to be place where any new face will invariably be greeted by numerous people.  Based on what I have seen, it’s a rare instance where newbies are not engaged in conversation during Kiddush.  These are all wonderful things – you are all refreshingly friendly. But there is always room for improvement.

At my last congregation, we made an effort once to improve our lobby to make it more inviting. We bought some comfy chairs, put in a K-cup coffee machine, and encouraged people to hang around. We also put up a display of little pamphlets on Jewish topics, with the intent of helping people find easy info on topics relevant to their lives. Some of the pamphlets had to do with grief and loss, such as “Talking to Children About Death” and “Making Sacred Choices at the End of Life” and “Taking Your Sadness to God.”

A long-time member of the congregation, a former president, came up to me not long after installing this display, and waved her hand dismissively at the display.  “This,” she said, shaking her head, “this is not us.” She meant that the face that the congregation should put forward is an uplifting one, not an image that reminds us of pain and suffering and loss.

But she was wrong. It was us. It is us. We all suffer. Thank God, we have moments of joy. Thank God, we have moments of life and light and ecstasy. But we also have moments of grief and pain. And it is in those times that you need a synagogue, a community, a ritual framework.

Whenever Parashat Vayyera comes up, I have to speak about hakhnasat orhim, the welcoming of guests. Any of you who have been to a parlor meeting with me over the past year know that we study the first part of today’s parashah, what we read this morning, to parse out from it the actions that Abraham performs in welcoming strangers into his home. It is an episode in the Torah that speaks very heavily to how we must conceive of ourselves today. This is our tent – Mah tovu ohalekha Ya’aqov – how good are your tents, O Jacob – and we want people to come in. All people.

I made an observation on Thursday morning at shaharit that, while it is architecturally sensible for the door into a sanctuary to be located at the back, it might be spiritually wrong. How do you think it looks to somebody coming to synagogue for the first time to walk in and see only the backs of others?

Perhaps the entrance should be up front, near the aron haqodesh, the ark. Maybe we should rise for visitors as we do when we take out the Torah. That’s how important it is to welcome others into our tent – to acknowledge the holiness in each person who enters.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the visitor who comes in, particularly the one who needs comfort in the context of grief, is greeted at the door by somebody who can sit with that person and help her/him through the service experience? Wouldn’t it be a good thing if the regulars among us were to offer a place at a Shabbat table to all who are in need?

Folks, Listen!: Embracing Brokenness

To return to Leonard Cohen, the bard of brokenness, I’ll remind you of a line from his 1992 song, “Anthem,” which I mentioned in the study passage last week.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in

Embedded in the reference to Lurianic kabbalah is the suggestion that fracture yields light; that being broken enables us to receive the goodness that God gives, the support of community, the wisdom of the generations. Brokenness, in some sense, enables us to thrive.

And that is why we as a community need to reach out to all who enter and embrace them in all of their humanity. That is why we are here, and that is why we need to keep thinking about what we can do to make Beth Shalom the place where people want to come, to bring their joy, their sorrow, and their whole heart.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 11/19/2016.)

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