Vayeira 5782: Two Years Later...
Vayeira (Genesis 18-22 )
This upcoming Sunday, October 24th, the 18th of Cheshvan, is the second yahrzeit of our beloved mentor Rabbi Kalman Packouz, of blessed memory.
On a person’s yahrzeit (Yiddish for the yearly anniversary of a loved one’s passing – literally “time of year”) it is particularly appropriate to discuss the uncommon qualities possessed by those who have passed because, as we learn from them and try to emulate their exemplary behavior, it is a continuous merit for their souls.
Rabbi Packouz was a unique individual; the rare person from whom one can learn a seemingly endless number of life lessons just by observing how he led his own life. I have detailed many examples of this in previous issues. But there is one remarkable quality that the good rabbi and his family possessed that is particularly difficult for people to emulate and it is especially relevant to this week’s Torah reading.
Many people strive to act kindly. Whether it is helping a friend in need or a stranger through a “random act of kindness,” most kind deeds fall into a very specific category where both the recipient and the giver feel good afterwards.
However, there are situations that don’t fit neatly into that grouping. My father likes to cite the example of the woman who was very ill and couldn’t prepare food for her family for Shabbat. In such a situation, some of us would try to resolve it by contacting a restaurant or takeout place and arranging for food to be delivered. Others would make an even greater effort and perhaps prepare a fully cooked homemade meal and personally bring it over. Many people in her community would be motivated to contribute in such a way.
But, in this case, the woman would only accept food that was made in her home kitchen. So anyone who wanted to participate would have to go to this person’s home and prepare the food using her products, cookware, utensils, and appliances. This was a whole different kind of favor and almost no one was willing to do it because it caused one to feel like a personal servant. It’s almost impossible to feel like a benefactor in such a situation. The usual warm feeling that comes with being a “giver” is basically nonexistent.
We are often faced with similar situations, where doing kind and generous acts can be unpleasant. How many times have we crossed the street to avoid giving food or money to homeless people because they appear dirty or because they are deeply involved in an interplanetary tête-à-tête with invisible beings (or both)?
There are many situations like that, where getting involved would make us feel really uncomfortable, but the need is often desperate. We just don’t feel good enough about it to be motivated to do the right thing.
This was not Rabbi Packouz. His first concern was always, “What does this person need and how can I be helpful?” His altruism was uniquely focused on the needs of others, not how it made him feel. I remember him once telling me that when going to visit patients in the hospital he would often be mistaken for an orderly and the patient would hand him their bedpans to empty and clean. He always happily complied.
The good rabbi and his family regularly hosted a blind paraplegic for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. This unfortunate individual had a very difficult and painful existence. Sadly, he also wasn’t naturally blessed with a happy or upbeat personality; being in pain he was often cantankerous and more than a little ornery. On occasion, the rabbi and his family had to attend to some VERY personal sort of service for him because he was extremely physically limited. This kind of commitment to a guest in our homes would be unimaginable for most, but the good rabbi and his family regularly hosted this person for over ten years.
In Judaism, the quintessential paradigm of benevolence was our patriarch Abraham. In this week’s Torah reading we find a few examples of Abraham modeling acts of chessed (kindness) under difficult circumstances:
This week’s Torah portion opens with Abraham in great physical pain – and yet he is sitting at the doorway to his tent looking for weary travelers to welcome in and offer respite from their hot and dusty travels. He spots three “men” (who are actually angels sent by the Almighty to give Abraham what he craved – an opportunity to help others) and, even though he is in great pain, he runs out to greet them:
“Let a little water be fetched, please, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread, that you may nourish your hearts. After that you shall pass on; seeing that you have already come to your servant. And they said: So do, as you have said” (18:3-5).
The great medieval Biblical commentator Rashi (ad loc) quotes the Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) to explain: Abraham was under the impression that these “visitors” were Arabs, who were known to worship the dust on their feet. This was a type of idol worship. As a nomadic people, they constantly traveled and therefore deified the “god” of the roads. According our sages, they viewed the dust of the road as something sacred; something that should be worshipped (see Maharal commentary).
The Talmud goes on to say that the angels didn’t appreciate Abraham suspecting them of such behavior and actually criticized Abraham in their response: “Did you actually suspect us to be Arabs who bow to the dust of their feet? First look at your very own son Ishmael (who regularly does that).” In other words, the angels were scolding Abraham: Before accusing others of misdeeds get your own house in order.
This is quite perplexing. Our sages don’t invent conversations out of thin air; how did the ancient Talmudists deduce that this was the exchange between the angels and Abraham?
If one carefully examines the verses it can readily be seen what led the sages to this conclusion.
Consider, for a moment, three people who are traveling in the blistering heat on a parched and dusty road – desperate for some sort of shelter. They come across a welcoming tent with a benevolent host offering them not only respite from the sun, but plenty of cool water and food as well. The host only has one stipulation; “Please wash your feet, I will then fetch you water and food while you’re comfortably resting in the shade of my tree.”
What should be the appropriate response to this kind and generous offer? One would imagine that you don’t need to have the manners and etiquette of Emily Post to respond, “Thank you, kind sir! Of course we will do as you wish!” Yet the angels respond in a very odd manner; they basically command him, “so shall you do, just as you have said.” Our sages are bothered by the fact that this seems to be a very inappropriate response to a kindness that is offered with a generous heart.
Therefore, they conclude that the angels aren’t responding to his generous offer, they are responding to his accusation or assumption that they are idol worshippers. Now their comments begin to resonate – before trying to fix other people’s shortcomings, first take care of the very same issues that you have in your own home (see quote of the week).
Perhaps the most remarkable lesson for us is how Abraham responds to their chastising of the manner in which he runs his household.
After all, it’s never easy to open oneself up to honest criticism. One would imagine that accepting severe criticism from a guest in your home would give one serious pause. Yet Abraham accepts their criticism with equanimity and literally “runs” to make preparations for them and otherwise oversees that all their needs aren’t just minimally met; they are offered expensive delicacies and attentive service.
Undoubtedly, this is why Abraham is the paragon of the attribute of chessed. True kindness shouldn’t be delivered based on your feelings toward the recipient; true kindness is based on the needs of the recipient and doing whatever you can to show them how much you appreciate the opportunity to be of service. This is the very same lesson that I saw my beloved friend Rabbi Packouz, of blessed memory, model in his own home and when helping others.
As I mentioned above, the greatest kindness we can do for those that have passed on is to learn from their lives and try to emulate their behavior. May the memory of his holy soul be a blessing for us all.
Vayeira, Genesis 18:1 - 22:24
Abraham, on the third day after his circumcision (brit mila), sits outside his tent looking for guests to extend his hospitality. While talking with the Almighty, he sees three visitors (actually angels of the Almighty). Abraham interrupts his conversation with the Almighty to invite them to a meal. One angel informs him that in a year’s time his wife, Sarah, will give birth to a son, Isaac (Yitzchak).
God tells Abraham that He is going to destroy Sodom because of its absolute evil (the city is the source of the word sodomy). Abraham argues with God to spare Sodom if there can be found ten righteous people in Sodom. Abraham loses for the lack of a quorum. Lot (Abraham's nephew) escapes the destruction with his two daughters.
Other incidents: Avimelech, King of the Philistines, wants to marry Sarah (Abraham’s wife), the birth of Isaac, the eviction of Hagar (Abraham's concubine) and Ishmael. Avimelech and Abraham make a treaty at Beersheva. Abraham is commanded to take up his son, Isaac, as an offering “on one of the mountains” (Akeidat Yitzchak). Lastly, the announcement of the birth of Rebecca (Rivka), the future wife of Isaac.
Do you want to know the reward for listening to the command of the Almighty? This is what the Almighty told Abraham: “[…] I shall surely bless you and greatly increase your descendants like the stars of the heavens and like the sand on the seashore; and your offspring shall inherit the gate of its enemy. And all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your offspring, because you have listened to My voice.”
“When you point your finger at someone, three of your fingers are pointing back at you.”
— Rabbi Kalman Packouz