Thursday, October 21, 2010



Traditionalists have long been convinced that Abraham was the first monotheist.  The sages of the Midrash account for his theological revolution by suggesting that he was persuaded that a design as intricate as the cosmos required an omniscient Designer, and that the unity inherent in all things suggests a single creative Intelligence.  But Abraham (or Abram as he was still known) was not the only monotheist.  The Torah describes his meeting with at least one other contemporary monotheist, Malkhizedek, King of Shalem, “the priest of the most high God”.  So how did his monotheism differ from Malkhizedek’s?

Responding to the Divine call, he sets out to a strange land and alien culture, and readies himself to settle among people whose language probably differed somewhat from that of his native Ur.  How could this foreigner possibly have persuaded the inhabitants of Canaan to follow his invisible God?  There is no record of Abraham’s sermons and lectures, probably because intellectual discourse was not central to his mission.  What is recorded is his ethical sensibility.  He welcomes dusty Bedouin travelers into his home with respect, and treats them with dignity.  He argues with God about the injustice of destroying the presumed righteous minority of the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah along with the overwhelming majority who were corrupt.

In a sense, Abraham personifies the later biblical adage: ”The world is built on loving kindness”.   His ministry represents the transformation of conceptual, philosophical monotheism into ethical monotheism.  Belief in God carries with it the imperative of bringing light into a world of darkness through caring and kindness.  This was Abraham’s real religious revolution and the reason for the success of his mission.

The entire world was recently transfixed by the incredible rescue of thirty-three miners trapped in the bowels of the earth for 69 days.  The operation was a striking instance not only of human technical ingenuity, but also of human goodness, kindness and caring.  For sixty-nine days the regular affairs of state in Chile were transcended by the fate of 33 ordinary people whose lives hung in the balance. The Head of government left the presidential palace to show solidarity with ordinary citizens and spared no expense to save their lives.  The emergence of those miners from darkness into the light precisely reflected the goal of the religion of Abraham, the shattering of the darkness of humanity with the light of human kindness. 

Coincidentally, Yolande and I were watching a satellite broadcast of the rescue on Euro News that was followed by a special on the devastating floods in Pakistan.  Some 22 million people were displaced; their homes washed away, their food supply destroyed, their drinking water contaminated and their bodies ravaged by diseases.  The enormity of this catastrophe boggles the imagination, but there was no pause in the bloody campaign of bombing marketplaces and mosques by people whose ideology added darkness to darkness.  Chile and Pakistan:  What a contrast between darkness and light, love and hate, kindness and cruelty, moral excellence and ethical paralysis.  In Chile, the biblical mantra: “The world is built on loving kindness” was translated into an incredible, almost miraculous demonstration of light and love.  In Pakistan chaos piled on chaos.

The story of the   Chilean   rescue   is majestic indeed, and its execution was grand, but Abraham’s moral imperative also translates into small, but very significant acts of loving-kindness that cumulatively transform communities, societies and civilizations.  In the Jewish tradition, his hospitality to the wayfarer is particularly emphasized even though it was not at all dramatic.  Nevertheless, when emulated by those whose lives had been touched, it created a culture of caring.  Not surprisingly, therefore, our sages count hospitality among those virtues whose rewards we reap both in this life and beyond.  Significantly, the passage that describes the importance of hospitality is the rabbinic reading with which we begin our daily worship.  Why is this so?

Few things are as painful as loneliness and alienation.  Few situations contrast those who feel alienated and excluded by being left behind after worship with people who leave the synagogue in groups for shared food and fellowship.  Their exclusion accentuates their loneliness and emphasizes their sense of alienation. 

The simple gesture of a smiling invitation to your home moves the light of worship into the hearts of the disaffected and lonely.  This is why our synagogue has a hospitality committee. Like Abraham, we strive to show concern and respect for the feelings and needs of everybody.  There are simply no excuses for not participating in this simple demonstration of kindness and concern.  You live too far away? Partner and share the costs of hospitality with a family that lives closer by. You’re not kosher enough? Raise your standards-- or at least join with a family that is kosher in hosting someone for a Sabbath meal.  These are tiny gestures, but a small flickering candlelight dispels great darkness.  Volunteer your home and participation in this simple mitzvah. This is one small but effective way of showing that the world is built on loving kindness and that each one of us is a builder.

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