Friday, November 6, 2009

Welcoming and Comforting - Parashat Vayera

My intention this week was to write exclusively about the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim - welcoming guests - as the key to the future of successful Jewish institutions. The last twenty-four hours, however, have shifted my attention from hachnassat orchim to halvayat hamet - the mitzvah of burying the dead. In the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a, we are taught that among all the mitzvot:

These are the actions whose fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principle remains intact for her or him in The World to Come, and they are: Honoring your parents; acts of lovingkindness; early attendance at the house of study for shaharit and ma’ariv; showing hospitality to guests; visiting the sick; providing for the bride; escorting the dead; absorption in prayer; bringing peace between two people; and the study of Torah is equivalent to all of them...

The Talmud focuses on a variety of mitzvot and uses investment language to describe the benefits that fall to the person who performs them. When the Talmud talks about enjoying “the fruits in this world” and the “principle remaining intact in the World to Come,” the imagery is as if we are building an investment fund made up of our actions, our doing mitzvot, the interest from which we benefit today while retaining the principle, letting it grow, so that we can benefit from it in The World to Come. Think of it like an Olam Ha’Bah (World to Come) Roth IRA.

While there is an implication that some may perform these mitzvot precisely to build up there Other Worldly credits, either inflating their own personal stock or offsetting other less than worthy deeds, I don’t think the Talmud is actually talking to them. Rather, the Talmud is describing the character of a person who is constantly and intentionally working to make this World a better place. They do so not in order to gain reward at all, as described in Pirke Avot, but because they are called to do it, to repair this World in both joyous and difficult moments: Welcoming guests, showing hospitality, making another feel comfortable, at home, in what could be an otherwise uncomfortable situation - being a stranger in a community; Escorting the dead, part of Hesed shel Emet - the ultimate in true compassion for it cannot be repaid - includes the act of burial and the act of comforting mourners at the most difficult of times. Those engaged in these acts on a regular basis never seek out recognition, nor are they motivated by it. They do it because it should be done.

The world of Jewish institutions and organizations must focus anew, in a near zealous way, on the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim - showing hospitality and welcoming guests. As people seek to connect, there is a chance to welcome them, to make them feel a part, to show them the warmth and love of communities devoted to Torah. We need to take an honest inventory of how we are doing in our performance of this crucial mitzvah. Those who do it well will not only survive these challenging times but will thrive into the future. Those who do not will limp along with what they have but will slowly disappear as they fail to attract newcomers. Without doing welcoming well, we cannot inspire people with our incredible visions or ideas. They don’t stick around long enough to hear what we have to say because our first message is, unintentionally, “We are not interested.” Thinking about the summer, we need to challenge ourselves to do the same honest inventory I am talking about, to examine how we are doing at welcoming new campers, new staff members, and the myriad of visitors, from potential camper parents to families of campers and staff members, to Jewish professionals from throughout the region. We have to be open to learning, to adapting, and to improving on what we do. And not just because we want to be around and thriving in the future but because it is the right thing to do.

Listening to NPR this morning while dropping the girls off at school, the reports of the mass murder at Fort Hood in Texas were chilling. One reporter noted that it is often the case that we learn much about the murderer immediately but that we may wait at length to learn about the victims, if we ever learn more than their names at all. How do we participate in halvayat hamet - in escorting the dead - when we live so far away? What can we do to be nihum aveilim - to comfort those who mourn? There will be names and addresses soon and we can contact people and extend our words of comfort to those that do not know us. And there are many other ways to comfort those who are struggling with understanding how something like this happens in this world while they grieve the loss of loved ones.

One other way we can acknowledge the loss of these brave soldiers, those who were preparing to head off to Iraq and Afghanistan, is to acknowledge those soldiers we see who were not attacked at Fort Hood but who walk through our airports and communities everyday. If the Psalmist is correct - “Lo HaMeitim Y’Hallelu Yah” that it is not “the dead who sing Halleluyah,” then we can extend comfort to those who continue to serve in this World. Rather than focusing on outrage at the perpetrator, deserving though he is, supporting the victims and the soldiers serving in the US military is not only the ultimate in protest but it is a form of eternal and truthful Hessed. I will be in the airport again on Wednesday, heading to Kansas City for recruitment meetings, and am certain that I will see many soldiers making their ways either home or back to base and deployment. What will I do to support them and show some comfort to them?

Many communities have proclaimed this Shabbat one in which to focus on Hachnassat Orchim in the spirit of Abraham, who in this week’s parashah demonstrates why he and Sarah are the consummate performers of hachnassat orchim. There are excellent resources available from The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning in Washington DC about this crucial mitzvah and they can be accessed at . While we rejoice this Shabbat and try to match the level of excellence in welcoming guests that Sarah and Abraham display, we must also be reflective about the implications of yesterday’s tragedy in Fort Hood and find ways to participate in the comforting of distant mourners. In focusing on both of these mitzvot, we all help move this world a bit closer to becoming The World to Come, where nobody will feel like a stranger and where mass, senseless murders will be replaced with ever increasing and abounding Love.

Shabbat Shalom.

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