Monday, November 2, 2009

Vayera / Avraham's Traife Banquet

Avraham is the epitome of hospitality, a model for all time. In parashat Vayera we are told that he is sitting at the entrance to his tent during the heat of the day when three stranger appear as if from out of nowhere. Avraham rushes to greet them and welcomes the strangers by washing their feet and providing a banquet. Avraham not only provides the best of what he has for them, he also serves them himself, rather than relegating this task to a servant.

One question we might ask is whether Avraham’s guests – whom we know to be angels – eat the food. Our Rabbis explain in Baba Metzia 86b that they only appeared to eat the repast, though a midrash claims four centuries later when the angels objected to God giving the Torah to Israel and implored God to keep it in heaven with them, God pointed out that they had indeed eaten traife in Avraham’s tent.

Another question that arises concerns the decidedly unkosher menu: [Avraham] took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate (Genesis 18:3). Is this a cheeseburger? Avraham lived long before the laws of kashrut were given to Israel at Mt. Sinai, so this should not present a problem. Nonetheless, mishnah Kiddushin 4:14 (citing Genesis 26:5) assures us that Avraham kept all the mitzvot – including the laws of kashrut – although he was not commanded to do so. Moreover, other commentaries point out, Avraham did not actually dine with his guests; he only prepared and served the food. Yet another claims that Avraham didn’t serve the milk and meat together and left a proper waiting period between them. These are klugy answers.

Even Kabbalah weighs in on these questions and teaches that each physical substance represents a different spiritual energy. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi taught that dairy foods are associated with chesed (loving kindness) and meat is associated with gevurah (might). The creamy, white flow of dairy products reflects the emotional energy of loving-kindness and nurturing, while the red color and tough consistency of meat reflect the human capacity for discipline, limitation, and rejection. We need both attributes, and often need them at different times, but in most cases we want our chesed to prevail over our gevurah.

There’s a powerful message here about our innate proclivities. We have the capacity – and therefore responsibility – to both rein them in when they go too far, and to use them productively. How often do we excuse excess in one spiritual energy or another (either leniency or harshness) by claiming it’s our “nature” and we cannot “fight who we are”? If we think of both proclivities as powerful, valuable, creative spiritual energies, imagine how much we can accomplish in life by harnessing them for our purposes. One of the foundational ideas of Kabbalah is that God is an ever-flowing fountain of spiritual energy and if we know this, and make the effort (through prayer, study, meditation, and other means) we can tap into the flow. The message here is that you have resources you don’t yet realize, and continuous access to more.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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