Dvar Torah

Parashat Vayera

November 18, 2016


In just over one week, I will have the incredible privilege of standing under the chuppah with Jennifer Estroff and Eric Johnson, as they publically, officially, and spiritually bring their lives together in marriage. Because it would have been impossible for Jen and Eric to include you all in their wedding celebration, they agreed to allow us to hold an aufruf in their honor.  In Yiddish, Aufruf (Yiddish: אויפרוף ofrif,oyfruf, ufruf/ifrif or אויפרופן ofrifn), means “calling up.”  Traditionally, it is the Jewish custom of a groom being called up in the synagogue for an aliyah, the blessing over the reading of the Torah.[1] In more liberal congregations both individuals are included in the honor.  Although an aufruf is usually held on a Saturday, during the Torah service, I suggested to Jen and Eric—for various reasons– that we hold their aufruf on a Friday night.  We will still call them up, and give them our collective blessings, and shower them with sweetness.

When Jen and Eric get married next Saturday evening, they will stand under the chuppah, the Jewish wedding canopy, as most couples do in a Jewish wedding.  The chuppah symbolizes the couple’s home.  It reminds us of Abraham and Sarah’s tent in the desert, which according to tradition was open on all sides to welcome guests.  Abraham and Sarah are considered paragons of hospitality; their example is said to exemplify the important Jewish value of hachnassat orchim, welcoming of guests, or visitors into our homes.

The origin of the idea that Abraham and Sarah were so welcoming of guests actually comes from this week’s Torah portion, Vayera.  The portion begins, “And the Eternal appeared to him [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.  And he lifted up his eyes and looked and lo, three men stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground.”

Commentators point out that Abraham ran and rushed to arrange a meal for them, so anxious was he to welcome them and make them feel comfortable and welcome.

And then the text goes on:  “And he said to them, My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I pray you, from your servant.” (18:3).

Commenting on this verse, the Sages of the Talmud say something pretty remarkable.  R. Judah said in the name of Rav:  “Hospitality to guests is greater than greeting the Shechina, the Divine Presence.” (Shabbat 127).

What?  Welcoming guests is greater, more important than greeting G-d?  How could that be?  They said it was obvious because in the first verse the text said, “And the Eternal appeared unto Abraham.”  But in the next verse, Abraham sees three men and runs to greet them. From this, they deduced that a person can leave G-d in order to take care of guests.

Can you imagine such a thing?  Say you are sitting on your porch, enjoying a beautiful day, and suddenly, G-d appears to you.  I don’t know about you, but I’d be stunned, awestruck.  But then, while sitting there blinking, trying to see if what you are seeing is real, suddenly, three wanderers show up and walk up the path to your home.  Jewish Tradition says that you should leave G-d and tend to your visitors.  Can you imagine saying, “Hey G-d, can you hang on a minute?  I have to greet these guests.  I’ll be back in five.”

Hospitality to guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence.

As I thought about this, I could not help but think about the current situation that we are facing.  Millions and millions of refugees—some estimate 65 million–fleeing their home countries, in search of a safe refuge.  And very few countries, including our own, willing to take them in.  Denying whole groups of people entry, simply because they belong to a particular religion or ethnic group.

And, not only allowing people in, but also, sending people away.  Rounding them up if they are not in the country, legally, and deporting them.

All week long I’ve been reading emails about different communities around the country discussing whether or not to become sanctuary cities.  Churches and congregations and even cities voting to declare themselves places of refuge for those who are told that they are not welcome here.

And I couldn’t help but think about Abraham and Sarah, and the generosity of spirit they showed by opening their tent to wanderers.  R. Levi Titzchak of Berdichev, a great Chassidic teacher, taught that the difference between Lot and Abraham was that Lot saw angels, whereas when Abraham lifted his eyes he saw simple people, wanderers covered with dust, who were weary and thirsty, and he begged them, “pass not away, I beg of you, from your servant.” (18:3).

Times were so much simpler then.  There were no nation states, no requirements for citizenship, no quotas.  Yes, there were tribal territories, and groups did vie for control of desirable land.  But I cannot help but imagine that when wanderers trudged up to people’s tents, covered with dust, weary and thirsty, people’s hearts opened, and they welcomed them in, giving the them food, drink, and shelter, feeling great compassion for the arduous journey their visitors had been on.

Well, at least Abraham and Sarah did, as the sacred story that has been passed on down through the generations tells us.  We are their descendants, and their legacy is now ours to make real in our own lives.  And to pass on to the generations that come after us.

[And that made me think of Connie and Jake, and the incredible generosity of spirit that they showed by taking three little boys into their home, and overnight expanding their family of three to a family of six.  And the incredible example that they are setting for all four of their boys, most especially Henson, who perhaps more than anybody learned the lesson that hospitality is not something that you just talk about, but that you live out in your actions.]

These thoughts will all be present for me, next Saturday night, when I have the privilege of performing the wedding ceremony for Jen and Eric.  Though my attention will be focused on them, somehow, I think, all of you will be there too, surrounding their chuppah with your love and your support.  And there too, present with us under the chuppah, will be Abraham and Sarah, and the generations upon generations who have gone before, walking the path of love and commitment, reaching out to the risk of living and loving with arms open wide.

Shabbat Shalom.