This year’s E-Torah approaches the weekly portion through the lens of Mussar, a practice of spiritual/ethical discipline developed in 19th century Lithuania by Rabbi Israel Salanter. The path of Mussar is one of refining our actions and attitudes by focusing on midot—soul traits such as humility, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, etc. Our Jewish Community School and Lifelong Learning programs for 2020/2021 are also grounded in the Mussar tradition. As we learn this tradition together we deepen our Jewish roots and grow, as individuals and as a community.
Like most Americans, I am heading into this week with a great deal of trepidation. In over forty years as a voter, I have never seen an election that provoked such division and vituperation. No matter what happens on Tuesday night (and, perhaps, well beyond), the fear of violence is very real; indeed, it has already started, as a caravan of Trump supporters tried to run a Biden-Harris campaign bus off the road.
Any hopes of healing this fractured nation will require what our tradition calls hachnasat-orchim—audacious hospitality that welcomes strangers and breaks down the barriers that divide us.
For a model of this, consider our Torah portion for this week, Vayera.
First a review. In last week’s portion, Abraham and Sarah, like countless immigrants over the ensuing centuries, left their familiar home (in their case, Mesopotamia) for a distant Promised Land. Over the course of their journey, they met with numerous hardships along the way: unfriendly neighbors, war and strife, famine and hunger.
Abraham and Sarah’s struggles could have hardened their hearts. But in the beginning of our parsha, we learn that, quite to the contrary, their suffering deepens their compassion.
Abraham is sitting outside the family tent in the heat of a sweltering desert day when he spies three strangers in the distance. He runs out to greet them, bows respectfully, and declares: “Do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” Then he and Sarah jointly prepare a lavish feast for their guests, waiting on them with extraordinary generosity. Later, these strangers turn out to be angels. But Abraham and Sarah do not recognize this at the time; as far as they know, they are simply extending their hospitality to fellow refugees in need of lovingkindness. Having been homeless sojourners themselves, their hearts—and their deeds—go out to those who now share that plight.
The soul trait/midah that undergirds the mitzvah of radical hospital is chesed—enduring lovingkindness. It is not so much about attitudes as actions that provide for others, or what Alan Morinis calls “generous sustaining benevolence.” Abraham and Sarah embody chesed—a virtue that we dearly need in this challenging moment. The way to start is with small acts that make a difference, even—or especially—when you are not feeling particularly loving. As Morinis notes in his book Every Day, Holy Day: “Our most valuable deeds of lovingkindness take place when we overcome an inner resistance and do the benevolent thing anyway. It has long been understood that the heart follows the deed—do good for people, and in time your own heart is transformed into a vessel of unalloyed kindness. The other benefits and so do we!”
Mussar Practice for this Week:
Reflect, whenever possible, upon the phrase, “My world on selfless caring stands.” Then seek out opportunities to extend active support and audacious hospitality to others, in any way that might be helpful. How, in this fateful week, can you be more like Abraham and Sarah?