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  • God and Strangers

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    God appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men were standing over against him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent entrance, and bowed down to the earth… (Genesis 18:1–2)         

    Thus Parshat Vayera opens with one of the most famous scenes in the Bible: Abraham’s meeting with the three enigmatic strangers. The text calls them men. We later discover that they were in fact angels, each with a specific mission.

    The chapter at first glance seems simple, almost fable-like. It is, however, complex and ambiguous. It consists of three sections:

    • Verse 1: God appears to Abraham.
    • Verses 2–16: Abraham meets the men/angels.
    • Verses 17–33: The dialogue between God and Abraham about the fate of Sodom.

    The relationship between these sections is far from clear. Do they represent one scene, two or three?

    The most obvious possibility is three. Each of the above sections is a separate event. First, God appears to Abraham, as Rashi explains, “to visit the sick”[1] after Abraham’s circumcision. Then the visitors arrive with the news that Sarah will have a child. Then takes place the great dialogue about justice and the imminent punishment of the people of Sodom.

    Maimonides suggests that there are only two scenes: The visit of the angels, and the dialogue with God. The first verse does not describe an event at all; it is, rather, a chapter heading.[2] It tells us that the events that follow are all part of a prophetic revelation, a divine- human encounter.

    The third possibility is that we have a single continuous scene. God appears to Abraham, but before He can speak, Abraham sees the passers-by and asks God to wait while he serves them food. Only when they have departed – in verse 17 – does he turn to God, and the conversation begins.

    The interpretation of the chapter affects – and hinges upon – the way we translate the word Adonai in Abraham’s appeal: “Please Adonai, if now I have found favour in your sight, do not pass by, I pray you, from your servant” (18:3). Adonai can be a reference to one of the names of God. It can also be read as “my lords” or “sirs.” In the first case, Abraham would be addressing God. In the second, he would be speaking to the passers-by.

    The same linguistic ambiguity appears in the next chapter (19:2), when two of Abraham’s visitors – now described as angels – visit Lot in Sodom:

    And the two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot sat by the city gates. When he saw them, he rose to meet them and bowing low, he said, “I pray you now, adonai, turn aside to your servant’s house and tarry all night and bathe your feet and you shall rise up early and go on your way.” (Gen. 19:1–2)

    As there is no contextual element to suggest that Lot might be speaking to God, it seems clear, in this case, that adonai refers to the visitors.

    The simplest reading then of both texts – the one concerning Abraham, the other, Lot – would be to read the word consistently as “sirs.” Several English translations indeed take this approach. Here, for example, is the New English Bible’s:

    The Lord appeared to Abraham… He looked up, and saw three men standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the opening of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. “Sirs,” he said, “if I have deserved your favour, do not pass by my humble self without a visit.”

    Jewish tradition, however, does not.

    Normally, differences of interpretation of biblical narrative have no halachic implications. They are matters of legitimate disagreement. This case of Abraham’s addressee is unusual, however, because if we translate Adonai as “God,” it is a holy name, and both the writing of the word by a scribe, and the way we treat a parchment or document containing it, have special stringencies in Jewish law. If, by contrast, we translate it as “my lords” or “sirs,” it has no special sanctity. Jewish law rules that in the scene with Lot, adonai is read as “sirs,” but in the case of Abraham it is read as “God.”

    This is an extraordinary fact, because it suggests that Abraham actually interrupted God as He was about to speak, asking Him to wait while he attended to the visitors. According to tradition, the passage should be read thus:

    The Lord appeared to Abraham…He looked up and saw three men standing over against him. On seeing them, he hurried from his tent door to meet them, and bowed down. [Turning to God] he said: “My God, if I have found favour in Your eyes, do not leave Your servant [i.e. Please wait until I have given hospitality to these men].” [He then turned to the men and said:] “Let me send for some water so that you may bathe your feet and rest under this tree…”[3]

    This daring interpretation became the basis for a principle in Judaism: “Greater is hospitality than receiving the Divine Presence.”[4] Faced with a choice between listening to God, and offering hospitality to what seemed to be human beings, Abraham chose the latter. God acceded to his request, and waited while Abraham brought the visitors food and drink, before engaging him in dialogue about the fate of Sodom. How can this be so? It seems disrespectful at best, heretical at worst, to put the needs of human beings before attending on the presence of God.

    What the passage is telling us, though, is something of immense profundity. The idolaters of Abraham’s time worshipped the sun, the stars, and the forces of nature as gods. They worshipped power and the powerful. Abraham knew, however, that God is not in nature but beyond nature. There is only one thing in the universe on which He has set His image: the human person, every person, powerful and powerless alike.

    The forces of nature are impersonal, which is why those who worship them eventually lose their humanity. As the book of Psalms puts it:

    Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.

    They have mouths, but cannot speak,

    Eyes, but cannot see;

    They have ears, but cannot hear, nostrils but cannot smell…

    They that make them become like them,

    And so do all who put their trust in them. (Psalms 115:4-8)

    One cannot worship impersonal forces and remain a person; compassionate, humane, generous, forgiving. Precisely because we believe that God is personal, someone to whom we can say “You,” we honour human dignity as sacrosanct.

    Abraham, father of monotheism, knew the paradoxical truth that to live the life of faith is to see the trace of God in the face of the stranger. It is easy to receive the Divine Presence when God appears as God. What is difficult is to sense the Divine Presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passers-by. That was Abraham’s greatness. He knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one.

    In one of the most beautiful comments on this episode, Rabbi Shalom of Belz notes that in verse 2, the visitors are spoken of as standing above Abraham (nitzavim alav), while in verse 8, Abraham is described as standing above them (omed aleihem). At first, the visitors were higher than Abraham because they were angels and he a mere human being. But when he gave them food and drink and shelter, he stood even higher than the angels.[5]

    By choosing the most radical of the three possible interpretations of Genesis 18, the sages allowed us to hear one of the most fundamental principles of the life of faith: We honour God by honouring His image, humankind.

    Shabbat Shalom

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  • Беспричинная ненависть или что на кону?

    Шмуэль Катанов

    Наши мудрецы рассказывают что Первый Храм был разрушен из за трёх нарушений: поклонению идолам, убийствам и прелюбодеянию. Второй Храм был разрушен только из за одного греха - Синат Хинам - Беспричинная Ненависть.

    Все грехи из за которых был разрушен Первый Храм плохи сами по себе, но я хотел бы поговорить только об одном грехе который называется - беспричинной ненавистью. Давайте разберём его по деталям.

    Так что же является Синат Хинам? Это беспричинная ненависть или просто ненависть которая выходит из корня зла внутри человека. Это желание увидеть смерть или неудачу своего врага и когда человек в этом состоянии, всё что бы не делал "его враг" он будет воспринимать всё как негативное и никогда не усомнится в правоте своих убеждений и всегда найдёт защиту своим проступкам.

    Когда человек ненавидит, он всегда старается навредить своей жертве. Он говорит о нём плохо, выдумывает ложные истории чтоб иметь больше людей на своей стороне и чтоб у его жертвы было много врагов. Говорит и распространяет о нём лашон ара - злословие, слухи и сплетни - этим ломая и не обращая никакого внимания на множество законов Торы и мудрецов. Он делает всё чтоб разрушить его семью и сломать гармонию и мир его дома. Он портит ему репутацию в его общине и в месте где он зарабатывает свой хлеб. Он убеждает свою семью и людей вокруг чтоб к нему относились плохо. Это и многое другое делается скрытно и этим занимаются несколько людей в общине или многие во многих общинах.

    Из за этого уродливого поведения этих людей, Вс-вышний разрушил Второй Храм. Так если два Храма уже разрушены и нет ничего другого чего Вс-вышний может у нас отнять сегодня, получается что мы неприкосновенны и нам нечего бояться?!

    Мудрецы говорят, когда рождается новая семья, муж и жена создают и строят что-то грандиозно большое и святое - их собственный Бет Хамикдаш - Храм, где каждая комната у них в доме подразумевает тот оригинальный Храм. Спальня это Святая  Святых, стол в зале - это Мизбеях там мы принимаем гостей  и поглощаем наши земные приношения. Кухня это место где всё приготавливается по всем строгим законам кашрута.

    Наши дома, синагоги и религиозные заведения являются теми маленькими Батэй Микдашим - нашими Храмами. Эти места где находится присутствие Вс-вышнего, где делаются митцвот и где прибывает Святость.

    Вс-вышний хочет мира и единства между людьми в общине и между общинами, где люди помогают друг другу, рады за других, где видят только хорошее в других без зависти и ненависти к другим. Где они желают другим лучшие дома, машины, отпуска, уважение и тому подобное. Всё это и многое другое Вс-вышний не хочет а требует от нас.

    Второй Храм был разрушен из за ненависти, которая является самой уродливой чертой, которая поглощает многие общины и людей не зависимо от их уровня религиозности. Избавление от этого недуга является Ахават Хинам - Беспричинной Любовью.

    Наши Мудрецы говорят, "В том поколении в котором Храм не был построен, как будто он был разрушен в их дни" (Иерусалимский Талмуд, Трактам Ёма страница 1а). Потому что это поколение следует по тем же стопам тех поколений из за которых был разрушен Храм, не стараясь исправить их ошибки.

    Продолжая этим путём, мы ставим свои маленькие Батэй Микдашим - храмы под удар. 

    Наша работа состоит в том чтоб измениться в лучшую сторону делая хорошие дела, уважать и помогать другим просто так, отречься от ненависти и злобы - к членам своей общины и к окружающим, улучшить нашу службу к Вс-вышнему и заслужить увидеть Мошияха, избавления и построения Третьего Храма в наши дни.

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  • Four Dimensions of the Journey

    Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    Within the first words that God addresses to the bearer of a new covenant, there are already hints as to the nature of the heroism he would come to embody. The multi-layered command “Lech lecha – go forth” contains the seeds of Abraham’s ultimate vocation.

    Rashi, following an ancient exegetic tradition, translates the phrase as “Journey for yourself.”[1] According to him, God is saying “Travel for your own benefit and good. There I will make you into a great nation; here you will not have the merit of having children.” Sometimes we have to give up our past in order to acquire a future. In his first words to Abraham, God was already intimating that what seems like a sacrifice is, in the long run, not so. Abraham was about to say goodbye to the things that mean most to us – land, birthplace and parental home, the places where we belong. He was about to make a journey from the familiar to the unfamiliar, a leap into the unknown. To be able to make that leap involves trust – in Abraham’s case, trust not in visible power but in the voice of the invisible God. At the end of it, however, Abraham would discover that he had achieved something he could not have done otherwise. He would give birth to a new nation whose greatness consisted precisely in the ability to live by that voice and create something new in the history of mankind. “Go for yourself ” – believe in what you can become.

    Another interpretation, more midrashic, takes the phrase to mean “Go with yourself ” – meaning, by travelling from place to place you will extend your influence not over one land but many:

    When the Holy One said to Abraham, “Leave your land, your birthplace and your father’s house...” what did Abraham resemble? A jar of scent with a tight-fitting lid put away in a corner so that its fragrance could not go forth. As soon as it was moved from that place and opened, its fragrance began to spread. So the Holy One said to Abraham, “Abraham, many good deeds are in you. Travel about from place to place, so that the greatness of your name will go forth in My world.”[2]

    Abraham was commanded to leave his place in order to testify to the existence of a God not bounded by place – Creator and Sovereign of the entire universe. Abraham and Sarah were to be like perfume, leaving a trace of their presence wherever they went. Implicit in this midrash is the idea that the fate of the first Jews already prefigured that of their descendants[3] who would be scattered throughout the world in order to spread knowledge of God throughout the world. Unusually, exile is seen here not as punishment but as a necessary corollary of a faith that sees God everywhere. Lech lecha means “Go with yourself” – your beliefs, your way of life, your faith.

    A third interpretation, this time more mystical, takes the phrase to mean, “Go to yourself.” The Jewish journey, said R. David of Lelov, is a journey to the root of the soul.[4] In the words of R. Zushya of Hanipol, “When I get to heaven, they will not ask me, why were you not Moses? They will ask me, Zushya, why were you not Zushya?”[5] Abraham was being asked to leave behind all the things that make us someone else – for it is only by taking a long and lonely journey that we discover who we truly are. “Go to yourself.”

    There is, however, a fourth interpretation: “Go by yourself.” Only a person willing to stand alone, singular and unique, can worship the God who is alone, singular and unique. Only one able to leave behind the natural sources of identity – home, family, culture and society – can encounter God who stands above and beyond nature. A journey into the unknown is one of the greatest possible expressions of freedom. God wanted Abraham and his children to be a living example of what it is to serve the God of freedom, in freedom, for the sake of freedom.

    Lech Lecha means: Leave behind you all that makes human beings predictable, unfree, delimited. Leave behind the social forces, the familial pressures, the circumstances of your birth. Abraham’s children were summoned to be the people that defied the laws of nature because they refused to define themselves as the products of nature. That is not to say that economic or biological or psychological forces have no part to play in human behaviour. They do. But with sufficient imagination, determination, discipline and courage we can rise above them. Abraham did. So, at most times, did his children.

    Those who live within the laws of history are subject to the laws of history. Whatever is natural, said Maimonides, is subject to disintegration and decline. That is what has happened to virtually every civilisation that has appeared on the world’s stage. Abraham, however, was to become the father of an am olam, an eternal people, that would neither decay nor decline, a people willing to stand outside the laws of nature. What for other nations are innate – land, home, family – in Judaism are subjects of religious command. They have to be striven for. They involve a journey. They are not given at the outset, nor can they be taken for granted. Abraham was to leave behind the things that make most people and peoples what they are, and lay the foundations for a land, a Jewish home and a family structure, responsive not to economic forces, biological drives and psychological conflicts but to the word and will of God.

    Lech Lecha in this sense means being prepared to take an often lonely journey: “Go by yourself.” To be a child of Abraham is to have the courage to be different, to challenge the idols of the age, whatever the idols and whichever the age. In an era of polytheism, it meant seeing the universe as the product of a single creative will – and therefore not meaningless but coherent and meaningful. In an era of slavery it meant refusing to accept the status quo in the name of God, but instead challenging it in the name of God. When power was worshipped, it meant constructing a society that cared for the powerless, the widow, orphan and stranger. During centuries in which the mass of mankind was sunk in ignorance, it meant honouring education as the key to human dignity and creating schools to provide universal literacy. When war was the test of manhood, it meant striving for peace. In ages of radical individualism like today, it means knowing that we are not what we own but what we share; not what we buy but what we give; that there is something higher than appetite and desire – namely the call that comes to us, as it came to Abraham, from outside ourselves, summoning us to make a contribution to the world.

    “Jews,” wrote Andrew Marr, “really have been different; they have enriched the world and challenged it.”[6] It is that courage to travel alone if necessary, to be different, to swim against the tide, to speak in an age of relativism of the absolutes of human dignity under the sovereignty of God, that was born in the words Lech Lecha. To be a Jew is to be willing to hear the still, small voice of eternity urging us to travel, move, go on ahead, continuing Abraham’s journey toward that unknown destination at the far horizon of hope.

    Shabbat Shalom

     Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

    [1] Rashi, 12:1.

    [2] Bereishit Rabbah 39:2.

    [3] On the principle, “What happened to the fathers is a portent of what would happen to the children,” see for example, Nahmanides, commentary to Genesis 12:6. On Nahmanides’ use of this principle throughout his commentary, see Ezra-Tzion Melamed, Mefarshei Hamikra (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1975), vol. 2, 950–53.

    [4] R. David of Lelov, Pninei Ha-Hassidut (Jerusalem, 1987), vol. 1, p88.

    [5] R. Ephraim Lundschitz, Kli Yakar to Bereshit, 12:1.

    [6] Andrew Marr, The Observer, 14 May 2000.


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