Archive for November, 2011

Vayera: Servant Leadership

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Vayera

“He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.” (Bereshit/ Genesis 18:8)

Good afternoon!

Our Torah portion, Vayera, opens with the famous scene of Avraham sitting in the opening of his tent, when he is visited by three men who eventually announce the birth of a son to Avraham and Sarah. Avraham doesn’t know these “men” are really angels or emissaries from the Holy One;  Rashi says they appeared to be just normal Arab travelers. Nevertheless, Avraham’s reaction is startling: he runs to greet them, invites them in, offers them food and drink, and instructs his servant to prepare a meal.

Now, never mind the apparent violation of mixing milk and meat together in the verse above; one could say that the laws of the Torah hadn’t been given yet, or one could simply point out that “curds and milk” come before the calf, and indeed even in a traditional understanding of Jewish dietary practices, one can have soft dairy like milk or yogurt right before meat, with only a quick rinse of the mouth and the table cleared between them. So let’s put that question aside, and focus on a different aspect of Abraham’s actions: his example of not only hesed, or kind generosity, but also his humility, in serving the guests himself, standing over them and attending to their needs.

The rabbis of the Talmud told a story in which several of the great sages attended a feast for the son of Rabban Gamliel, the leader of the rabbinic court, and marveled that R. Gamliel himself served the drinks to the guests. Rabbi Yehoshua pointed out that Avraham was the greatest man of his generation and yet stood over his guests and served them, so why not Rabban Gamliel? (Talmud Kiddushin 32b, quoted in the Torah Temimah.)

To me, this little story conveys so much about leadership, humility, and honor. Of course we should honor great sages and accomplished leaders; but they bring themselves even more honor through humble service to others. “Servant leadership” is a term you find these days in business books and journals, but it’s hardly an innovation: the ancient rabbis well understood that religious and moral growth is always correlated to great compassion and generosity, and these in turn are actions, made real through something as simple as serving a meal or welcoming guests.

In the view of the ancient sages, Avraham’s greatness was not in his status or prowess at war, but in the fine details of his ability to give. Seen this way, standing over guests and serving a meal is a profound and necessary religious act- indeed, who remembers that Avraham built an altar? Of greater importance was his example of humble service, which inspires to this day.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Lech Lecha: The Wealth of a Kingdom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Lech Lecha
“Then the king of Sodom said to Abram, ‘Give me the persons, and take the possessions for yourself.’  But Abram said to the king of Sodom, ‘I swear to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth:, I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ ”  (Bereshit/ Genesis 14::21-22)
Good Morning! 

This week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, is mostly about the adventures of Avraham, who came from the east to the land of Canaan, only to descend to Egypt and come back. In an incident sometimes known as the “war of the five kings,” five kings of the land of Canaan fought against four other allied kingdoms, and in the middle of the battles, Avraham’s nephew Lot was taken captive. Avraham rouses his own small army of 318 men, pursues Lot’s captors, and rescues his nephew along with other inhabitants of the city of S’dom

Upon returning the captives of S’dom to their city, the king offers to let Avraham keep all the spoils of the war, and Avraham’s reply, quoted above, seems to convey almost contempt for the idea. Avraham seems to be refuting the idea that he would need or want a reward for rescuing his nephew,* but he does allow the king to pay him for his servant’s provisions. 

It strikes me that both Avraham and even the king of S’dom are drawing a distinction between what’s really valuable- the people- and what is of secondary importance: the property. Avraham was motivated to go to war to rescue his family member, and doesn’t want that motivation ever to be called into question, and even the king of S’dom seems to be mostly happy that his captured subjects have returned. One could argue that the king showed his true values in assuming that Avraham would be pleased by an offer of material reward, but for today, let’s assume that he, too, was happier for the safety of people than by the restoration of mere property, however valuable. 

This reading of Avraham’s refusal of reward makes sense to me after the great Halloween blizzard last week. For those who haven’t heard, the northeastern states got up to 18 inches of snow last weekend, which is often part of life around here, but not usually this early in the fall, when the leaves are still on the trees. The weight of the snow on the leafy trees brought branches down in great number, knocking out power, internet, telephone lines and even cell phone towers. We lost power by late Shabbat afternoon, and didn’t get it back for several days, but fortunately kind congregants with heat took us in and we were just fine. This past week I’ve heard the same thing over and over: it was a royal inconvenience that the power and internet was lost, but thank God, my family is OK. 

It shouldn’t take a freak snowstorm or a war of five kings to remind us of the obvious: at moments of danger or life transition, the things we think of as most valuable are not the material things we own but the spiritual relationships we treasure. For his nephew, Avraham would go to war, but if not for his family, the wealth of a kingdom is not worth a sandal strap. 

Shabbat Shalom, 

RNJL 

*For more on Avraham and the war of the five kings, do come to Shabbat services this week, when our bat mitzvah will expound upon these events and their application. Thanks for getting me to think about this story, Elianna! 

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