Living Selflessly

6 November 2009 19/ Cheshvan 5770

Friends,

Once upon a time, there was a very pious Rabbi who was known for his incredible ability to immerse himself in Torah study.  When he opened the Torah and learned from it nothing could interrupt him.  And no one dared to disturb him.

Except for one person.

It was his infant grandson who started to cry while the great Rabbi studied.  Without hesitation, without any anger, the Rabbi closed the Torah he was studying and rushed to the baby.

While all of this was going on, the child’s father, the Rabbi’s son, was also busy studying Torah.  So busy that he failed to hear the cries of his son.

Later that day, the Rabbi had a talk with his son.  “No matter how involved one is in an endeavor,” the Rabbi said to his son, “however lofty it may be, one must never fail to hear and respond to one in need.  Never!”

In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is sitting in his tent, recuperating from major surgery.  He had just circumcised himself.  Imagine how uncomfortable he was!  As he sat in his tent, the Torah tells us that God paid a visit to Abraham, appearing before him in the middle of the desert.  Quite the honor – getting a visit from God! But, Abraham was a holy man who appreciated God.  He was worthy of such a visit.

During the visit something odd happens.   Abraham lifts his eyes and sees three men coming to his tent.  He runs to them and bows to the ground.  He offers them water, a place to rest, food.

Now, some of you know that these three men were actually angels who came with a very important message, but, the fact is, Abraham did not know this.  He just assumed they were three men wandering the desert.

Given this, you might say: “Abraham, you’ve got some chutzpah – some nerve!  You were being visited by God and you stood up, left God, and ran to three people who you had never met?  Abraham you totally insulted God!?”

However, the Talmud, the great book of Jewish law, interprets Abraham’s actions very differently: it says “greater than receiving God is the mitzvah of receiving others.”  In other words, it was right for Abraham to leave God hanging in order to feed a bunch of strangers.

Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher, finds it remarkable that as Abraham is communing with God – he was still capable of seeing the three strangers.  In the same way, even in the midst of intense study, the great Rabbi was still able to hear the cry of his grandson.  Abraham, in pain from circumcision, communing with God, did not lose the ability to be aware of others.

In our world today, we need more people like the great Rabbi and like our patriarch, Abraham.  We know of too many stories of people who have allowed desire, greed, and wants to drive them to commit terrible crimes against others.  The selflessness of Abraham and the Rabbi are not simply traits that we should admire.  They are traits that we must make our own.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Andrew Jacobs

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