Thursday, November 24, 2016

Parashat Chaye Sarah: On Doing Favors

To do another person a favor is a more weighty act than we usually think. There is a Hasidic notion that sometimes a soul comes down to earth for 70 or 80 years with the sole purpose of doing a specific favor for one particular person. What an awesome thing is that favor! But as we don’t know which one we were sent here to do, we have to treat them all with the same sanctity.

“I will give you to drink, and I will also give water to your camels.” So says Rivka to Avraham’s servant in this week’s parsha. Perhaps it was to do this one act that she was sent down to earth.

It is a simple act, this giving of water, but it has a huge impact, unlocking blessings from bracelets to marriage and children to the continuation of our people. Such is the weight of a favor sometimes.

Rivka encapsulates the favor-giving attitude. She is unstingy with her time. Can you imagine the scenario? She, a young maiden, serving a wealthy master’s servant and helping him not just with one camel – and they drink a lot – but with all 10. If it were me, I would be tempted to say, or at least think – why can’t you do it yourself (or at least help me do it)? You look strong enough. Or – I have my own animals to worry about, too. But we get no such sign of skepticism or stinginess from Rivka. She gives freely and enthusiastically of her energy, which is, after all, often our most precious commodity. Like the water coming out of her pitcher, she fairly overflows with generosity and good heart.

Here is gemilut hasadim, the doing of kind deeds, at its best. Note the repeated use of the word hesed in this parsha and also, a bit more subtly, the word gamal, “camel” (thank you to my son Medad for this idea).

The ultimate doer of hesed, as Avraham’s servant repeatedly reminds us, is God. Do we deserve all the good we get daily? Do we really deserve these beautiful children, all this plentiful food and the stunning world He created for us? Of course not. It is all hesed, free giving done, like Rivka, without calculation. When we feel the full extent of that blessing and that overflowing generosity, when we can really see that cornucopia, we can also, like Rivka, give to others in that same unstinting way.

It is sometimes difficult to know what action to take in this confused world. Maybe it will help to remind ourselves that the whole point may be quite simple --- the whole point may be to do one person a particular favor and to do it in Rivka’s generous way.

Parashat Chaye Sarah: On Avraham's Servant and Service of God

Everyone knows that Avraham’s servant’s name is Eliezer. The Torah tells us about him and names him earlier in the Avraham saga. Why, in this week’s parsha, do we hear of him solely as eved Avraham, “the servant of Avraham”?

Perhaps part of Eliezer’s function in this parsha is to teach us about service. We are commanded to be avdei Hashem, “servants of God.” How does one do this? Take a page from Avraham’s servant’s book.

He is single-minded in his pursuit of the task his master has assigned him. He is in such a rush he seems to have arrived at the spot even without travelling. Rashi says he had kefitzat haderekh, “jumping of the road,” – his journey took less time than Waze predicted.

And all of this servant’s many speeches are all for one purpose – to achieve his mission of getting a proper wife for his master’s son. And so, again, to match his enthusiasm there is a quickening of time and in the middle of making a deal with God, there she appears, the right woman, the very first he sees.

When he gets to the house, he is offered food but no, Avraham’s servant must first perform his task. There is nothing else on his mind but to fulfill his master’s mission – get the girl home. Again, after they agree, there is the possibility of delay – the family suggests staying around for a year or so, as was traditional – but Eliezer insists and she agrees and off they go.

Zerizut, “alacrity,” and total focus on the mission at hand are the hallmarks of this servant and so should they be our hallmarks as servants of God. Our tasks may be less clearly defined, but if we keep in the forefront of our minds at all times that we are servants of God, put here to perform some helpful function, that our primary desire is simply to be of service, if we keep this in mind and do not stray, then we, too, will have kefitzat haderekh, “jumping of the road”, God’s aid in achieving our goals.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Parashat Vayera: On Strangers and Angels

Sometimes the people we think of as strangers turn out to be angels in disguise. Avraham saw three people in the distance. He did not know they were angels; he thought they were just weary travelers in need of hospitality. They turned out to be angels sent by God to bless him and Sarah with a child.

Maybe strangers are sent to us as a test -- a test our openness and generosity and faith in the bounty of God’s gifts to us. If we treat them like Avraham treated them, with an open tent, a warm meal and a welcoming heart, then they become blessing angels, sent to bring us blessing and fruitfulness. But if, on the other hand, we treat them like the people of Sodom treated strangers – we take advantage of their vulnerability to harm them – then they become divine agents not of blessing, but of destruction.

I am reminded of all those childhood stories about the ugly hag who stops the child on his journey, asking for a little bread or some assistance. The old hag turns out to have magical abilities and she then curses or blesses the child depending on the child’s reaction.

Perhaps we too are tested in this way, and when we give to those who are strange and unknown to us then we discover that they are angels who carry blessings, and when we don’t, we find that they are criminals sent to hurt us.

Many are the strangers in our lives – those from other countries or cultures, those with different political views, even those closest to us have aspects of the stranger in them. If we can somehow keep our tent open and invite them in, we will turn those strangers into angels of divine blessing; they will teach us something we need to learn and we will grow and be fruitful.