Monday, July 22, 2013

Sermon at St. Matthew's Number 2

I was invited back to St Matthew's on Sunday were I stoke on Genesis 18.  It was fun and I do enjoy these interactions with other faiths that share text.  I hope that you will enjoy this.  While this isn't exactly what I is the theme.  DVDs of both talks are available at St. Matthews if you are interested in them.

Good morning. I am glad to return here this week and hope last week’s exploration was fun.  Today we talk on a narrative that takes us into the connection between God and Abraham and Sarah.   Before we get into it I want to talk a little bit about commandments, in Hebrew mitzvot.  We all know of the 10 etched in stone at Sinai and in fact we read about that yesterday in synagogues around the world, but does anyone know how many commandments were found by the Rabbis in the Torah?  Guesses?   613…so where are the located?  We find them right here.   In the 2nd century, as the Rabbis were writing down the Oral law, they found 613 commandments.   Now since we are Jews, not everyone agrees to which are the 613 and which a subsections of a bigger commandments, but like wizards, infinite are the arguments of Rabbis.  But right in this little piece of text we find 3 examples of behavior that lend themselves to ways to live and be a better person.
The opening line begins with God visiting Abraham…Abraham was sitting in the heat of the day recovering from circumcision that took place in the last chapter of the Torah.  God’s visit, which is unusual as it is the first time God, simply appears.  Like a friend.  We glean from this the mitzvah of bikkur cholim, visiting the sick.  Visiting the sick is included in the category of Gemilut Hasadim, "the giving of loving kindness", but is singled out by the rabbis as something special. It is said that one visits the sick they help move the person toward recovery.  Visiting the sick is an act one does out of the kindness of their heart and cannot be remunerated for it, even indirectly.  It is an act of Godliness in the world, as we mimic the actions of God in the story.

However the story quickly changes and Abraham sees 3 men (or angels) walking toward his tent.  We will learn later that two of these angels will move on to Sodom where they will visit with Lot.  They do not appear divine at all but simply travelers, this is important as we see Abraham’s actions.   At that moment the recovering Abraham springs into action.  He RUNS to them, he HASTENS into the tent to tell Sarah to make cakes, then RAN to his servant to fetch a nice calf who himself HASTENS prepare it.  Then he waits on them under the tree.  Remember too that he does this for strangers when he was just chatting with God on his stoop.    This act of kindness to strangers again leads us to another commandment hakhnasat orchim (literally the “bringing in of strangers”).  Hakhnasat orchim, another of the acts of loving kindness is important and we call this hospitality.  Abraham and Sarah, it is said, were masters of this practice, so much so that Jewish legend teaches us their tent opened in every direction to welcome all from wherever they came from.  Hospitality becomes important to the Jewish people later when they become the strangers in a strange land.  It is funny, at this meal that is prepared, Abraham serves the angels curds and milk (cottage cheese) and meat of the calf.  Today many  will quickly see this is a non-Kosher meal by today’s standards.  While this appears to us to be a big breach, it is easily explained by Torah commentators.   However it does give us a chance to point to the fact that more people know about the separation of milk and meat which comes from a twice repeated line of Torah than the complexity of our obligation to do hakhnasat orchim which is explicitly mentioned 36 times in the Torah.  It is interesting that often we can forget where the emphasis in the Torah was as to what we should be doing.  But clearly Abraham and Sarah, though both had problems, are good role models for us as God was in the first verse.  Though not perfect, neither are we, and that makes it easier for us to see it is possible to reach out to the stranger or do great things for the sake of heaven. 
The last couple of lines we read today have something completely different.  You see the angels had a task with Abraham,   to tell him that he and Sarah would have a child.  Sarah overhears the conversation. She “laughs to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment – with my husband so old?’”  The term ednah is translated as enjoyment but that is the PG version.  It really has a more adult connotation and means abundant moisture.  The Torah is clear the Sarah was past the age of child birth so the slam on Abraham from Sarah was unnecessary and one might say petty.  But think about, they were very very old and married very young.  You know people who have been married a long time that dig at their spouses, often as a relief of some hidden tension, but truly from love.  But what happens next is the real lesson.    In the very next verse, God reports her laughter to Abraham. But he tells Abraham that when Sarah laughed, she said: ‘Shall l in truth bear a child, old as I am?’”  God leaves out the part about what Sarah said about Abraham.  A lie of omission?  Maybe.  The Rabbis clearly notice this.  God, sparing hurt feelings of Abraham, leaves out the part of the story that would be hurtful to him.  In doing so, God models behavior that we might want to emulate. The commentators have taken from this an important value that trumps many others.  It is called  Shalom Bayit or peace in the home.   In the Babylonian Talmud the discussion of this leads those to say one might tell an untruth for the sake of peace.  This is not to say that we don’t value the truth, in fact it is quite important and mentioned several times in the tradition. In the next few lines after God’s omission even Sarah is rebuked for lying about laughing.   But what is more important is the fact that the Torah is a book of heart, of feeling.      

So often when people think of the commandments in the Torah they think of the legalism of Judaism.  They think of what it the correct thing to do.  With 613 commandments and the subsequent offshoots of each, just living one’s life must be difficult.  One can live their lives in constant worry of doing something wrong.  “Did I chose the right blessing for what I just ate?”  “Did I make sure I said the prayer at the right time?” “Did I honor my parents enough?”  Oddly, we can see ourselves being hamstrung by the overwhelming nature of Halacha, or Jewish law.  But Halacha means the Way.  It is a path, a direction.  The Torah is our guide.  While legalism has always been part of the Jewish tradition so has the commentary or the Oral Law, the explanation of what it means to live within the guidelines of Torah.  You see that played out in the scripture narrative.  Throughout history the Jewish people have struggled with the language and law of Torah.  But in the end the Bible is a book that should be used not to make us less human, but to express our humanity.  Every one of our Biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs are flawed.  Abraham, while father of great nations, brought both of his sons to near death.  Sarah, was mean to Hagar and Ishmael and even here laughs at her husband’s age and lies.  Even the great Moses stuttered and failed God at Miribah and Miriam made fun of Moses’ wife because she was not of their tribe.  But what we learn from them is not to be perfect but to be human.  In three very short sections composing less than 15 verses of text we learn the importance of visiting the sick, hospitality, and of keeping peace in the family, gleaned from the ancient text by writers throughout the centuries.  That is what is meant by the importance of the law.  While the letter of the law is instructive, the spirit and the heart of the law are more important.  It is what makes us remember more about feeding a hungry stranger and less about how long to wait between eating curds and milk and the fatted calf.  

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