Monday, October 31, 2011

Opening our hearts / Vayera

Shakespeare wrote, “Unbidden guests are often welcomest when they are gone.” Benjamin Franklin famously said, “Visitors and fish stink after three days.” Torah, however, lauds hospitality.

In this week’s parashah, Vayera, we read:
The Lord appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up [Abraham] saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree.” (Genesis 18:1-4)
Our Sages learn from this passage two mitzvot: bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) and hachnasat orchim (hospitality). The angels, manifestations of God, visit Abraham as he heals from his circumcision (chapter 17); hence God models bikkur cholim (visiting the sick). Abraham, the Rabbis tell us, had a tent with four flaps open in each direction so he could always welcome visitors, as we see him doing in this passage; Abraham exhibits hachnasat orchim (hospitality).

Nedivut ha-lev means generosity of the heart. It encompasses visiting the sick, welcoming guests, charity, and many other mitzvot that require us to open our hearts, hands, and homes to others. Abraham has come to be a seminal exemplar.

Nedivut ha-lev (generosity of the heart) requires that we share with others what we have (money, time, energy, possessions, and even our homes). It is an inborn trait in some, but most of us need to develop and nurture it in ourselves. Nedivut ha-lev takes concerted practice. For some this is a huge challenge.

A story is told about a time the community of Mezritch was in dire straits: a young Jew was arrested and held hostage by the Russian police on the eve of his wedding. The police chief demanded 10,000 rubles as bail to release the young man -- essentially ransom. The young man was an orphan, as was his fiancée, so the community set about raising as much money as possible. People sold their cows and chickens, furniture and samovars, but they only raised 1,000 rubles.

It was clear that they needed the help of Zev the Miser. Zev was rich, but he had never given so much as a kopeck to anyone.

Four great rabbis, the Alter Rebbe (then still a young man), the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, and Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk, went to visit Zev.

Zev welcomed them into his home and listened to the heart-breaking story they told. “This is indeed am emergency,” he said. “I will give you one kopeck.” Now, a kopeck is 1/100 of a ruble -- essentially a penny. The Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and Rabbi Mendel wanted to throttle the miser, but the Alter Rebbe stopped them. He shook Zev’s hand and said, “Thank you so much. What you’ve done is wonderful and we are deeply grateful.”

Then the four rabbis left. They had not gone half a block when Zev called them back. “Here’s another kopeck,” he said. The Alter Rebbe again expressed his gratitude and praised Zev for his generosity. Again the rabbis left. Within a minute, Zev called them back again. This time he gave them a ruble. Again the Alter Rebbe treated it as a truly significant gift. This pattern continued, with Zev giving 5 rubles, then 10 rubles, then 100 rubles. In several hours, Zev the Miser had contributed the entire sum needed to ransom the young man in time for his wedding.

After the wedding, the Maggid of Mezritch, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak and Rabbi Mendel asked the Alter Rebbe, “How did you know what to do? What changed Zev the Miser into a generous man?”

He responded, “Last night Zev learned that he had far more spiritual strength than he ever knew. At first he had only the strength to give a kopek, but then he gave another and another. Each time he gave, he realized the good he was doing and grew in generosity and spiritual strength. It goes step by step for all of us.”

The story teaches us that generosity is learned and practiced. It is not an innate trait in everyone, but it can be developed and nurtured.

Why is it so difficult? What causes timtum ha-lev (stopping up of the heart)? I’d like to suggest three possibilities: First, those who have experienced abuse, neglect, or deprivation in their lives may close themselves off to others as a way of self-protection. Second, ego can block up our hearts. We live in a society that places a premium on wealth and possessions; giving something up is then seen as a loss. Third, timtum ha-lev may arise due to a fear of elevated expectations: if I give this much now, or host these people now, how much more will be expected of me next time? Our life experiences shape us; our attitudes guide our decisions; our fears paralyze us. It takes concerted effort to overcome any of these three causes of timtum ha-lev.

Torah describes in some detail Abraham’s hospitality. Note how he involves others:
Abraham hastened into the tent of Sarah, and said, “Quick! Three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. He 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 18:6-8)
Abraham makes his tent a training ground for nedivut ha-lev (generosity of the heart). He involves his whole household in the mitzvah. He doesn’t just preach it, nor does he merely teach by example. He gets everyone involved.

May our homes be schools and laboratories for learning and practicing nedivut ha-lev (generosity of the heart) in all its expressions and manifestations, so that we and our children start it flowing out our front doors, into the streets, and out into the world beyond.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the first rebbe of Chabad.
Maggid of Mezrich: Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch (c. 1705-1772), a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism.
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev (1740-1809), a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk (1730-1788), a disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch.

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