Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Parshat Vayera 4

The Parsha opens with G-d appearing to Avraham. We can’t begin to imagine the sublime spiritual delight of basking in the actual presence of G-d. Avraham was now at the highest level of prophecy, and was able to literally hold a conversation with the Creator of the universe. Yet in the very next verse, when he sees three men in the desert, at a distance, he runs to greet them. He cuts G-d short, as it were, excuses himself from the prophecy he is receiving, and rushes to offer hospitality to a ragged group of wandering travellers. Even though offering hospitality is clearly a very important thing to do, why would anyone choose to stop a conversation with G-d, the ultimate in spirituality, in order to do one single good deed? Furthermore, who gave him permission to break off this prophecy in order to fulfil the Mitzvah of hospitality? Shouldn’t G-d have told him to leave if that was really more important?
To answer this question, we must digress to look at the origin of idolatry, which Avraham dedicated his life to refuting. Obviously people were not so naive as to spend 15 minutes building an idol, set it on a pedestal, and then become confused as to who created whom. Rather, the chain of events which led up to idolatry was as follows. Many things in this world appear to have no apparent function other than their beauty. For example, to you or I it would make very little difference if, instead of 75 billion stars, there were two missing. If the only purpose that G-d has for creating the stars is for beauty, then it would seem that we should spend time contemplating that beauty. Since the stars are not visible during the daytime, doesn’t it make sense to make pictures and replicas of them so we can spend more time involved in the wonders of creation? Perhaps we should set aside regular times for this contemplation, formalising our spirituality in order to reach a greater understanding? And since some people are more spiritually inclined than others, it would make sense that we should have them instruct us as to how to best understand the wisdom of the stars. Soon enough, you have an entire religion built up, worshipping idols of stars.
This is the process that occurred in the generations prior to Avraham’s, and this was the society in which he was raised. At which point did they make their mistake? Surely the last step of worshipping the stars was merely an inevitable consequence of everything that had gone before. In fact, the real mistake was the first step, searching the heavens for spirituality. What Avraham realised, was that the purpose of life was not meditation of the sublime, but rather the hands on, day to day activities. It was these that we should concentrate on. That is why he dedicated his life to helping others: not because he was the “nice guy” of the ancient world, but because he saw this as the purpose of mankind.
Therefore, to return to our questions, it was obvious to Avraham that he was obligated to run out to greet guests, even if it meant interrupting his dialogue with G-d. The purpose of existence was not contemplating the Divine, but rather the small details of our daily conduct. He knew that since G-d had chosen him, and singled him out to begin the Jewish nation, that G-d agreed with him that this was the correct path.
In Victor E. Frankl’s book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, in the section describing his experiences in concentration camps during the holocaust, he summarises this idea very well. He writes: “We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life-daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right actions and right conduct...”Life” does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete.”
The opening of the Parsha teaches us that the most important goals in life are not contemplating abstracts and philosophies, but rather the nitty-gritty details of how we behave every minute of the day. This is also the reason taht Jewish Law consists almost entirely of techinical details, rather than sweeping statements about “belief” or “philosophy”. It is in these details that we define our relationship with the Divine.

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