We are very grateful, as a community, to Marcia Black for organization two wonderful shabbat morning programs–this past week and the week before–focusing on our Chesed and Tikkun Olam committees, and on those committees at the JCA that deal with the end of life: Cemetery committee, Hevre Kadisha, and Shomrim.

Marcia delivered a stunning d’var Torah on the first Shabbat, on the theme of chesed–acts of lovingkindness–called “Angels and Messengers Among Us.” She has granted permission for it to be printed here:

Parasha Vayeira – Marcia Black – November 3, 2012
Angels and Messengers Among Us

I wonder how Abraham felt, as he sat beneath the sacred oaks, the third day after God’s covenant had been cut into his flesh. No protective membrane to insulate himself from naked experience – no boundary to separate one instant from the next… Have you ever felt this – this raw, tender opening into the unclothed moment – at a time of loss, perhaps, or sickness, or love, or overwhelming joy? a time when reality itself was undressed, and all you had left was – in the words of Jay Michaelson – unworded simplicity? (Jay Michaelson, 2009, 224, “let me commence this undressing of reality, this unwording of simplicity”, 224)

I live inside Abraham’s skin for a moment…the garments of need and expectation – fear and false hope – are dropping away…he is feeling the distance he has traveled – from his father’s house and from everything he thought he knew – he feels the pain in his body and realizes his body is responding differently now.

Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg explains that after Abraham is circumcised, the final letter is added to his name. She writes, “…by adding a heh to his name, his body is completed. …Some fullness of vision, hearing and touch will allow him to communicate with the world at a different level of intimacy.” (Zornberg, 2009, 141) Abraham Joshua Heschel describes this capacity for intimacy as a way we come to know God – not by thinking about God but by discovering ourselves as the subject of God’s thinking. (Heschel, 1975)

God appeared to Abraham amidst the oaks of Mamre not because Abraham contemplated God as an ‘other’ that he beheld, and not because God decided to take a stroll in the park, but because Abraham discovered himself as a subject of God’s seeing. As Zornberg explains (Zornberg, 140, quoting Merleau-Ponty), the toucher is always touched – you can try it for yourself – one hand touching the other – we are object and subject simultaneously; as we are touched by God, we touch God, as we are seen by God, we feel ourselves seen, and we see God.

Abraham’s new body includes the sense-perception that belongs to the soul. (This is a different interpretation of Abraham’s new body than Rashi’s, who describes Abraham’s new body as including the five organs of eyes, ears, and sexuality). As the sun lifts its light towards noon, Abraham, with this new body, is now able to know, through all his senses, what has been there all along – in front of him, beside him, behind him, under him, above him and inside him, God now appears. Sitting beneath the sacred oaks, with all his senses breathing in and singing out, Abraham is filled with a gratitude that knows no bounds. Heaven and Earth touch inside his body. I can hear him as he sings our morning prayer ….modeh ani lefaneikha. “I give thanks before You.”

In that moment of fullness, of gratitude, Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees three men standing before him. Three men who are instantly dear to him, three men who he knows – like him – are flames always melting into the Fire; three men who – like him – know that blessing and being blessed, seeing and being seen, giving and receiving, create the pure moment where God enters our world.

Abraham welcomes these three men into his home to rest, to refresh themselves, and to eat. I like to imagine the three men and Abraham – maybe Sarah too – maybe even Eliezer his servant – sitting at the set table. I imagine their conversation: they give thanks for the bounty on the table, they talk politics and morality- what is happening in Sodom and Gemorrah – should Big Government or Big Business or the Big Guy in the Sky step in and take care of it? Whose responsibility is it, anyhow, to help out people, and societies, in trouble?

As evening light dims into night, they talk about their aches and pains, and perhaps discuss remedies for wounds and weariness. They open up to each other about their deepest concerns, their most profound dreams. A kind of radiance begins to fill the room – I am sure you too have felt this at certain meals with friends and strangers – a radiance that grows warmer and brighter as their conversation becomes more intimate, as a caring for one another begins to warm in their hearts. They realize how blessed they are that their paths came together, on this night, in this moment. They are no longer strangers to one another, and this too is a blessing.

When they arise the next morning, Abraham no longer feels the pain from his circumcision, and the three men are no longer weary from their travels. One of them says, boker tov – good morning, and the other gives what has now become a traditional response, boker or – meaning – morning light. Theologian David Patterson writes that …in the greeting of boker or – morning light – we offer the or panim – the light of the face – to the one who greets us and thereby seeks our response. …” The connections between the Hebrew words halal – to shine or give out light – hilel – to praise or glorify – and hilal – a crown or halo of light – sheds light on what happens in this moment of true greeting. “If the soul is the candle of God,” Patterson writes, “it shines with a halo of gratitude, offered to God in the greeting offered to another.” (Patterson, 2005, 94)

And so, with their radiant faces and their halos of gratitude, Abraham and the men continue on their way to help Abraham’s nephew Lot and whoever else in Sodom and Gemorrah might sill have abit of light shining in them. The text no longer calls the men anashim – the word commonly used for people, but instead angels, melachim. Abraham himself is so near to God that he is able to argue passionately about the importance of saving human life.

Somewhere in the dialectic of giving and receiving, greeting and being greeted, welcoming and being welcomed, helping and being helped, holiness enters. Strangers become friends. Human beings become angels.

Last June I sat around another table here at the JCA – where the women of chesed were having their monthly meeting. It was a quiet meeting – everyone was tired from their days – and they were focused on the work at hand. They each spoke about who they had visited in the previous month, who had cooked a meal, who had delivered it, who had needed a ride to a doctor’s appointment, who had needed someone to bring them some groceries, who had made a phone call just to check in with someone who had been sick. They spoke about who had brought food for a shiva, whether there had been enough prayer-books. They spoke about new babies who were making their way into this world, and who would bring over the gift- basket. They asked about other members who had been sick, to make sure that even if people weren’t reaching out to chesed for help, someone was keeping an eye out to make sure they were alright.

The simplicity of the meeting was astonishing to me, the lack of self-importance, the regard for each person who was in need. Matter-of-fact kindness permeated the room. There was no contentiousness, no complaining about the task at hand, no comparing who was in the most need, no jockeying for position, no pressure to help more than was possible for any particular person. I felt like I had stumbled into a secret society of marvelous beings who watch over the world and stitch it back together again night after night. Yet they were just ordinary people, members of the JCA, you and me.

I have read that the Shekhina, the feminine presence of God, hovers over a table where people are studying Torah. Surely the Shekhina sits at that table with chesed, as we quietly organize responses to those in need, hoping that people will feel comfortable enough to ask so that we can help. As Robin Diamond, a long-time chesed member, puts it, “It is by giving that we find our humanity.”

I have come to understand through my work with chesed, through caring for my ill child, through studying this parsha, that each act of giving and receiving kindness is simple, and the only thing that matters. All acts of kindness require that we take action, not just that we think good thoughts. Each act of kindness reaffirms the dearness of each of us; each act of kindness allows Light to enter this world; each act of kindness opens us to gratitude – and to the immensity of this naked reality – this Open Heart – we all share.

Heschel, Abraham Joshua, (1975), The Prophets, Harper, New York.

Michaelson, Jay, (2009), Everything is God, Trumpeter, Boston and London.

Patterson, David, (2005), Hebrew Language and Jewish Thought, Routledge, London and New York.

Zornberg, Aviva Gottlieb, (2009), The Murmuring Deep, Schocken Books, New York.