Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Ann Arbor, Michigan
November 12, 2016
Shabbat shalom. Rabbi Rachel and I are delighted to be with you as visiting family from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. I’ve wanted to visit Pardes Hannah since I became Reb Elliot’s student back in the year 1845 – really just seven years ago – but I hardly remember a time when we weren’t connected. Thank you for having us.
Honoring the Parshat Vayera story of Abraham’s visitors, I titled my talk today, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” As in 1967, when that film leveled its social critique on race relations, today we stand, as Abraham, at פתח האהל כחם היום / the opening of the tent in the heat of day. Both politically and societally, we stand at the opening in the heat of day, and we don’t know who or what is coming.
We might have much to say about the politics and sociology of this moment, but today my question is different: what does this moment ask of us spiritually? A tempting answer is to trace Vayera’s plot: Abraham raced out to welcome his unknown guests with enthusiasm, generosity and humility – and here we derive the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. One answer, then, is to discern what it can mean for us to welcome the unknown Other into our tent with enthusiasm, generosity and humility.
But today I ask a different question, more a meta-question. How do we sense spirit and divinity guiding us at that moment of decision?
Our paresha is called Vayera for a reason: וירא אליו ה’ באלנו ממרא / “God appearedto Abraham in the woods of mamre, the grove of vision.” It’s not that וירא אברהם ה’ באלני ממרא / Abraham saw God…, but rather God appeared, and only then did Abraham see: וישא עיניו וירא. The Sforno Rabbi, Ovadia ben Yaakov, who lived 500 years ago, noticed the similarity to Moses at the heat of the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:
A divine angel appeared in the heart of the fire in the bush; and Moses saw – here was a bush alight in flame, but the bush was not consumed
וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ ה’ אֵלָיו, בְּלַבַּת אֵשׁ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה;
וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ, וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל.
Of this the Sforno said that it’s not enough for God to appear. We humans are partners in both narratives – we look and see, and by looking and seeing, we co-create divine relationship.
Our Torah portion is called Vayera (appearing), but our part in it is Vayar‘ (seeing). Vayera is about God appearing, but only as the prelude to Vayar’ – seeing and co-creating divine relationship.
As for Abraham and Moses, so for us. We can joke, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” precisely because we don’t know, and because we sense that whoever is coming might be Other. That’s why we must keep our eyes peeled for the spark of divinity – even and especially in people and places that most challenge our vision.
We keep our eyes peeled – and that’s this moment, a moment of pain and uncertainty for so many. Zohar imagines that Abraham could see only because he was at the opening in the heat of day, healing from another kind of peeling – the circumcision that removed the cover over his … vision. Abraham’s pain and fever clarified his vision, and he saw.
I don’t know who’s coming to dinner. I can’t predict what today’s heat heralds for this nation. But Vayera reminds us to keep our eyes peeled for the divinity of Other; to call this liminal moment the portal that it is – the opening; to call the heat of day what it is – a fever that can refine vision. Vayera recommits to see different – actively, not only waiting for appearances but also bringing the fullness of our vision, even risking our vision, to dare seeing the miracle inside the mundane.
That’s what this moment asks of us – our fullest vision. Let us dedicate the vision of our spiritual eyes, our leadership, and our works in the world, to a vision worthy of Abraham and Moses. We need their example, and each other, to co-create the divine vision of this moment.