Sermon: Vayera

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 5 November 2021

David Goldberg, one of my classmates at Leo Baeck, did student services at Dublin Progressive synagogue. One Shabbat, he said, he saw an elderly man in the congregation, somebody he didn’t know, who was following the Torah reading very carefully. After the service, he was introduced to that man, who turned out to be Professor Jacob Weingreen, the doyen of all Biblical Hebrew grammarians. David said he was eternally grateful he only found out who the man was after he had read the Torah! I have no such luxury. I am about to speak about sociologists, in the full knowledge that our Barmitzvah’s uncle and grandmother are both leading sociologists of their generation. Here goes…..

When sociologists of religion want to study the religiosity of Jews, one of the ways they can do so is to survey peoples’ Jewish practice. They might find that x% of Jews kept Shabbat; y% were kosher; a smaller % kept kosher, but only at home and so on. From there they might draw some conclusions about Jewish religiosity. The problem with such surveys is that they tend to perpetuate the confusion between being ‘religious’ and being ‘frum.’ Frum is Yiddish from the German ‘froom’ meaning ‘pious.’ So frum often gets equated with the performance of ritual acts.

It’s an understandable confusion because, in its traditional expression, Judaism does have very many ritual acts. In the popular imagination, at least, the more of those acts you do, the more religious you are – or the more frum, both words being used interchangeably.

But even my most hard-line Orthodox colleagues would argue that religiosity also includes ethical business practice, marital fidelity and not beating your kids. Any serious view of Judaism would argue that being ‘religious’ involves observing as many of the traditional 613 commandments as possible, and that includes the ethical and moral ones.

But a system which pays meticulous attention to the minute details of ritual practice runs the risk of making correct performance the be-all and end-all of Jewish life, almost to the exclusion of other concerns, in particular those ethical mitzvot.

And because so many statements emanating from that part of the Jewish world seem to put – what appears to us – an inordinate emphasis on ritual practice, it leaves the impression that these are, indeed, the most important parts of Jewish life. If you shine such an intense spotlight on just one area, many others are left in the shadows and are assumed to be less-important.

From the earliest times, Jewish teaching divided the mitzvot into those bein adam la’makom, ‘acts between human beings and God’: lighting Shabbat candles, say, keeping kashrut, wearing tallit and so on, on the one hand; and, on the other, those mitzvot bein adam la’chavero, ‘between one human being and another’: tzedakah, helping the stranger, feeding the hungry, welcoming the refugee and so on.

Yet the distinction may not always be as clear cut as might appear. In the act of prayer – surely the primary mitzvah between us and God – we might come to a deeper understanding of ourselves and how we fit into the cosmos. That, in turn, will influence how we perceive others, finding expression in acts bein adam la’chavero, those regulating our relationships with other human beings, our ethical and moral behaviour.

We are often taken to task for not observing the mitzvot. But every time we give tzedakah, help another person, educate our children Jewishly we are observing the mitzvot no less than somebody who eats kosher or keeps Shabbat. Fulfilling our ethical obligations is not, in any way, secondary to our ritual duties.

Often, meeting with prospective members, they would tell me, “Rabbi, “we’re not very religious.” What I hear them really saying is something like “we’re not very frum.” Because if I were to suggest that they lead unethical lives, they would, quite rightly, be very indignant.

At dinner with friends recently, one asked me why I became a rabbi. Part of my response was to talk about being attracted to Reform because it was the first time I heard rabbis talking about what was called ‘prophetic Judaism’ – sadly, not a term used much these days – which spoke of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the wretched of the earth. Somebody at the table said “but aren’t those Christian values” to which I responded, perhaps a bit aggressively, “of course they are, but where do you think the Church got them from!?” This isn’t about being ‘territorial,’ wanting to claim it all as ‘ours.’ But just because other cultures, thankfully, regulate their ethical lives by these precepts, doesn’t mean they cease to be a fundamental part of Jewish teaching. We shouldn’t sell our Judaism short on this.

What, then, is it to be ‘religious’? Jacob’s Torah reading suggested an interesting definition. “God appeared to Avraham, as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent, as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.” (Genesis 18:1-2) He doesn’t know it yet, but they are divine messengers. But at this stage, he simply sees three human beings. In other words, he perceives the divine in human form. This isn’t suggesting some doctrine of God incarnated in human flesh, but a sense of feeling God’s presence, perceiving God’s image in other human beings, and in our relationship with them.

Franz Rosenzweig suggests that Avraham demonstrates here what it is to be ‘religious’ – that possibility of being able to see God in the face of the other. What does Avraham then do? A good ba’alebatish response: “kimmt herein,” he says, “come in, have you eaten?”

So the encounter with the divine leads him to one of the great mitzvot – hachnasat orchim, hospitality. Indeed, Jewish tradition derives the rationale for that mitzvah from Avraham’s behaviour in these verses. It’s as if the response of mitzvah is an attempt to capture a religious emotion and express it in concrete terms. Hence Rosenzweig’s formulation, “the religious person sees God in the human situation.”

If we understand ‘religious’ in this sense of ‘perceiving the divine in the other,’ certain conclusions inevitably follow. Every person has to be seen as containing within them a spark of the divine. The Kabbalists called them nit’su’tsay kodesh ‘holy sparks.’ The challenge for us, then, becomes “what do I have to do to release that holy spark in the other – and in myself – and so add to the sum of human goodness in the world?” The corollary is that each and every one of us is unique in some absolute sense: there has never been anybody like us before, nor will there ever be after us. And that bestows a sanctity on each person, on each human life.

If that uniqueness is real, it suggests that there is a specific purpose to our particular existence. The Jewish endeavour is to strive towards uncovering that reason and purpose, finding meaning in our existence. It means, as Rabbi Danny Siegel put it, somewhat cutely but nevertheless powerfully: “the person sitting next to us on the bus, in the cinema – or here – might be the Messiah just waiting for a show of human kindness from us.” It means, “he concludes, “that we will watch our hands and weigh our words.”

Why, asks the midrash, was Avraham sitting at the entrance to his tent. Because he was recovering from his circumcision – which we read about at the end of the previous chapter. And why should God have appeared to him now? Because God was teaching us about bikkur cholim, ‘visiting the sick.’ God also makes house calls. We could augment the midrash by adding that it was the least God could do for a 90 year old who has just circumcised himself!……

But when Avraham sees the 3 men approaching, he jumps into action, rushes to greet them, invites them in, sends his servants to prepare food. Midrash derives a basic but daring principle from this: “the mitzvah of hospitality stands higher even than welcoming the Shechinah, the presence of God.” (Shabbat 127a) When there’s a choice between responding to the divine and responding to the needs of other human beings, even God can, God should, be put on hold.

A Chasid once asked his rebbe, “You say there’s a purpose to everything in creation. So why, then, did God create atheism – an idea which denies God’s very existence?” “In order to teach you,” explains the rebbe, “that if a human being comes to you for help, you cannot say, ‘God will help you.’ You have to respond to their cry – that is your ethical and moral duty. Indeed, you have to do so as if there were no God and that you were the only person in the world who could help them.”

Maybe that is what being ‘religious’ is all about?