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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