The parsha Vayera has a lot of different stories:
The annunciation of Isaac’s eventual birth and Sarah’s laughter, Lot offering up his daughters for rape in the hopes of saving two visitors to Sodom, the destruction of Sodom, Abraham arguing with God about the destruction of Sodom, Lot fleeing Sodom and his wife turning into a pillar of salt, Lot having drunken sex with two of his daughters, Abraham saving his hide by once again pretending that Sarah is his sister rather than his wife and offering her up to Avimelech who gets punished by God, The birth of Isaac, the exile of Hagar and Ishmael, and then finally, the Akedah, when God asks Avraham to sacrifice his most beloved son which he quietly takes on although stopped at the last minute, then Rebecca gets born.
Phew. Too much.
I think i’ll just stick with the opening three verses, (here they are, in Everett Fox’s translation):
And YHWH was seen by him (Avraham) by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day. He lifted up his eyes and saw: here, three men standing over against him. When he saw them, he ran to meet them from the entrnace to his tent and bowed to the eart and said, My Lords, pray if I have found favor in your eyes, pray do not pass by your servant.
And Avraham gets them water and and food and has them rest. And it turns out these three men are angels who tell him and Sarah that they are going to have a child. Which is nice, in and of itself, but let’s dwell with this moment a bit, because this scenario is directly preceded by God’s announcement of God’s covenant with Avraham and Sarah and all their descendents, when Avraham has sealed this covenant by humbly having himself and all the men of his tribe circumcised, which, besides being rather drastic and painful, is, I assume, incapacitating making all these men incredibly weak and vulnerable, exposed to physical and emotional attack as well as God, connection with the the One-ness, and it is such an expression of trust, huge honking glorious trust. There will be time for thinking about God later but now it’s time to do God. Yowza.
Rabbi Yehudah Leith Alter, in the Hasidic text, Sefat Emet, The Language of Truth, writes:
“Soul and spirit long for their root, but they are bound to the body. By means of circumcision, the removal of the sheath, this desire of soul and spirit wins the day. The body really has the same form as the soul.”
And it is is in that moment that YHWH, the One-ness, is seen by Avraham by the Oaks of Mamre as he was sitting by the entrance to his tent. Imagine that moment, the ecstatic combination of pain and pleasure, exposure and communion, humility and achievement, and then—
Three strangers appear, looming over him, bam, there they are, out of nowhere, completely stealing the story, hungry and tired and dusty. I’ve sat on the subway many times, deep in my own profound and tremendously important thoughts and meanwhile hungry and tired and dirty people are lurching past me begging for money, begging to be seen., and I give them nothing, I don’t even look up, I let my earplugs enable me to pretend I haven’t noticed them, because hey you can’t give money to everyone, and these guys are probably going to drink it all up, and I just want to get home, I’m not getting any younger. Or, or, I hear from the Rabbi, there’s a demo for the 15 dollar minimum wage, at 6:30 AM. 6:30 AM? Hell no. I turn over and go back to sleep.
But unlike me, Avrahm doesn’t close his eyes or complain about his pain, Avraham runs to meet these men and bows to them and helps them wash up and feeds them and has them sit in the shade. And YHWH was seen by him (Avraham) by the oaks of Mamre as he was sitting at the entrance to his tent at the heat of the day.
Nehama Liebowitz writes,
“…practical good deeds take precedence over any abstract spiritual “enjoyment….he did not linger for a moment in the toils of mystic communion with his Creator, but ran to attend to the practical task of making welcome some tired and weary wanderers…”
I’m in my early old age, and I find as I age that i have morphed into a seeker and a meditator and a writer of kavannot and prayers. This is a very internal journey and I get mad and depressed when the practicalities of life intrude on my communion with God, whatever God means to me on any particular day. I most feel that connection when I write and when I write I am Avrahm, sunning myself in front of the tent, in a personal Shabbat, there is no past or present, only the now, an the ecstatic combination of pain and pleasure, exposure and communion, humility and achievement and then the phone rings or my back hurts and the bills arrive I freak out because I don’t have a job or a partner and I’m so scared about my old age. Or because the Republicans won’t admit that global warming exists. Or because the workers in the B&H warehouse are being mistreated, or fast food workers aren’t getting enough money to live on, or Palestinians are murdering random Jews on the street or Jewish extremists are burning families in their homes, or, you know, Donald Trump.
In the Pirke De Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Eliezer writes about the people of Sodom,
“They were dwelling in security without care and at ease, without the fear of war from all their surroundings, as it is said, ‘Their houses are safe from fear ‘(Job xx1 9). They were sated with all the produce of the earth, but they did not strengthen with the loaf of bread either the hand of the needy or of the poor.”
Without balance and priorities, we get lost. And alas, much as I would love to spend my days in meditation retreats and writing binges, or living a life without care and at ease, dusty strangers appear at my door, at our door. At Rosh Hashanah we learn that Teshuvah, repentence and humility, and Tefillah, prayer and ecstatic communion, and Tzedukah, charity and social justice, fulfill and complete us and I believe that it’s is in the balance of all three of these that we find our true selves as Jews, as humans, as members of this community. And that starts right here, in this parsha, in Vayera, as Avraham rises from his ecstasy and pain and feeds the stranger. It is time to be and to do.
God is a gerund, a verb ending in ‘ing‘,
a verb that has become a noun.
Always doing, always being.
Never starting, never ending.
But real and solid,
an idea made of action.
You want always to be in the image of that Noun,
A believer and doer and caretaker,
As your true self
In prayer and social action and conscious living,
You want to be in full connection with that Verb,
Believing and doing and caring,
In the truth, whether you call it God or not,
And regardless of the payoff.
So you construct descriptions and meanings
Or attach yourself to rituals and history.
Then your weakness becomes your strength
Your solitude becomes your community.
This helps us all get through our lives
And we are comforted
And we are able to comfort others.
The universe is vast and incomprehensible.
We need to find joy in our lack of understanding,
We yearn for God’s presence to pass over us,
As we rise from our tents to strengthen the hand of the needy.
Making the intangible, tangible.
Imagining the unimaginable.
God appeared and Avraham saw three strangers,
God is a gerund: a verb and a noun.