Thursday, October 21, 2010

Prioritising People Over Engaging God – Hospitality and Pleading for Sodom Vayera 1 5771

Putting God on hold for a person?!
“If only they would leave me and keep my Torah”[1] , says God. While this could be explained as being almost a trick in that keeping the Torah would lead people right back to God, it can surely be understood to be about God being more interested in the way we treat each other and our living by the Torah's teachings than our show of devotion to Him. An uncontested variation of this can be seen in Abraham's running out to greet guests in middle of an appearance to him by God. According to one reading of it he says to God, “God, if I find favour in your eyes, do not leave your servant[2]” while he attends to his guests. This is because “Hospitality to guests is greater than receiving the Shechina/divine presence[3].  Of course this is God's will, so it is not really putting people ahead of God but it does suggest that in compassion vs. religiosity, the divine will would put a high priority on the compassion side of the argument.

Hassling God
Abraham's bargaining with God about Sodom is another example of the appropriateness of putting people first. After God has told Abraham of his intention to destroy the wicked cities of Sodom and Amorah (I never understood, why the Hebrew Amora become Gemorah in English), Abraham pleads, argues and bargains with God about saving the city. “Would you destroy the righteous with the wicked[4]? Abraham, makes his request five times and speaks 93 words to try to save the city. In contrast the shortest prayer in the Torah is by Moses on behalf of his sister where he speak 4 words “Please, heal her please”. Abraham's reaction is contrasted favourably in the commentaries with Noah's who simply did as God instructed and did not argue or plead for his generation. It is Noah's failure to pray is seen so critically, that the flood is referred to as the waters of Noah[5].

Looking past the person you are talking to
One of the awkward things about networking events or even stand around social occasions is when you are talking to someone and they are looking past you to see who else is around that might  be more interesting. I wonder how similar that is to Abraham looking up at the visitors (“and he lifted his eyes and saw behold three men are standing upon him[6]”) and then runs off toward them, leaving God standing there.

Standing over him?
We might suggest that this is entirely different, because it says “they were standing upon him”, its a bit like being fully present in a conversation but then there is someone on a lower rung of the the social ladder who is hovering almost desperate for your ear or attention. This might be a reasonable parallel, although the meaning of “standing upon him” seems not to mean standing close to him because he runs toward them! Standing upon him could mean that Abraham realised that they were standing there for Abraham's needs, as visitors turned out to be Angels, Raphael to heal Abraham, another to bring the news that he and Sarah will have a son, and a 3rd on his way to destroy the wicked city of Sodom, but paying his respect to Abraham by delaying his mission until God discusses it with Abraham first[7]. 
Been and Gone
An alternative explanation by Rashi of the standing upon him and running, is that they first were standing close, but then saw him busy with bandages so the walked away as not to trouble him, at that point he got up and ran after his prospective guests in his eagerness to offer them hospitality. 

A good tactic by the visitors. I used a similar tactic with one of my quite prickly Lecturers at Yeshivah[8]. If I needed to ask him something, I could usually wait for ages while he happily continued with whoever was there before me. So I would stand around for two minutes and then pretend to lose interest or patience and walk away, as soon as I did, he would call me.

More, importantly, Rashi makes a beautiful point about Abraham's compassion, by noting the repetition of the words Vayar and he saw. The first time he merely saw them, but the second time he really looked and understood their hesitation which motivated him to persist in his efforts to offer them hospitality.   

[1]    Yerushalmi, Hagiga 1:7, quoted in Insights: A Talmudic Treasury.
[2]    Genesis 18:3, following Rashi's 2nd interpretation.
[3]    Talmud, Shabbat 127a.
[4]    Genesis 18:23
[5]    In defence of Noah, there is a midrash that says that many of the righteous people prayed for the generation and died, leaving Noah as the only righteous one. Also, in Noah's case there was no suggestion by God of openness (“an opening of a door) to discussion, the flood was going to happen, but in the case of Abraham God decision is more tentative. 
[6]    Genesis 18:2.
[7]    Ohr Hachayim.

[8]    An institution of Torah study for young men. 

1 comment:

  1. Amora becomes Gomorrah like Gaza is really Aza - it's the Ayin pronounced so far back in the throat that it causes that back of the throat to close, like a G/gimmel