Thursday, November 16, 2006

Was Avraham in the Kiruv Business?

Although these observations relate more directly to last week's Parasha, they are well worth mentioning anytime.

Parashat Vayera presents us with an inspiring view of Avraham's kindness and charity in action. The Torah describes the gourmet delicacies and the considerate attention that Avraham provided to his guests. This, in and of itself, is quite impressive. The Midrash, however, informs us that Avraham used his meals with passersby as opportunities to teach them about monotheism as well. At the conclusion of each repast, when the guests thanked their host and readied themselves to leave, Avraham would respond "don't thank me, thank Hashem!" This served as the point of departure for endless theological discussion.

While sharing this Midrashic vignette with my son two weeks ago, it occurred to me that it can be - and often is - interpreted in a way that I believe is unflattering to Avraham. On the surface, it seems as if the Midrash is portraying Avraham as a disingenuous outreach professional who invites people into his home only to indoctrinate them. Some might go so far as to construe Avraham as a crafty salesman who "wines and dines" his guests in order to persuade them to accept his religious ideas.

I think that this attitude toward Avraham's activities is fundamentally flawed, and that the Rabbis are teaching us something much more profound here. The Midrash does not mean to suggest that Avraham used food and drink as bait to lure unsuspecting travellers in so that he could brainwash them. Instead, the Rabbis are pointing out that genuine kindness, when extended to a human being, cannot be directed to the body alone. It must embrace and enrich the entire person.

If I provide for the material and emotional needs of my fellow man, but I neglect his intellectual and spiritual yearnings, then I have not completely taken care of him. If I focus my charity on only one or two dimensions of a human being - his physical body and/or his psyche - then I have failed to address the totality of his personhood.

When Avraham prepared elaborate banquets for anonymous travellers, his kindness and generosity were absolutely sincere. He saw creatures of God who were hungry and thirsty and, emulating the ways of God, he responded to their basic needs without the slightest hesitation.

However, Avraham understood that acts of kindness that satisfy the body, while important, are never sufficient on their own. They must be combined with acts of kindness that nurture the soul. Therefore, as soon as he finished providing his guests with the food, drink and personal warmth that they craved, Avraham made sure to offer them knowledge, insight and inspiration as well.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

על-פי המשמעות השנייה הושאל לשון אכילה לחוכמה, ללימוד ובכלל להשׂגות השׂכליות אשר באמצעותן מתמיד קיום הצורה האנושית במצבה השלם ביותר, כמו שהגוף מתמיד באמצעות המזון במצבו הטוב ביותר: לכו שברו ואכלו (ישעיה נ"ה, 1); שמעו שמוע אלי ואכלו טוב (שם, שם, 2); אכֹל דבש הרבות לא טוב (משלי כ"ה, 27)2; אֱכָל בני דבש כי טוב ונֹפת מתוק על חכך כן דְעֶה חָכמה לנפשך (שם, כ"ד, 13-14).
שימוש זה רב גם בדברי החכמים, דהיינו, שמכנים על דרך המליצה את החוכמה אכילה: תא אכלו בשֹרא שמינא בי רבא3; ואמרו: כל אכילה ושתיָה האמורה בספר זה אינה אלא חָכמה, ובכמה נוסחאות: תורה4

Moreh 1:30

Nice post

Larry Lennhoff said...

But apparently Avraham was not very good at kiruv. Of the travelers he mekareved and of all the 'souls he made in Haran' no trace remains.

Yehuda said...

Your point is very important. To be disingenuous in one's hospitality in order to be m'kareiv another individual is not only unethical it can also be ineffective. It is very hard to disguise a lack of sincerity. Additionally, even if one is sincere in their hospitality ulterior motives are easy to detect and will push many people away.

Do you have any ideas on the machloket Rav and Shmuel (or R. Yehuda and R. Nechemia)? I have been puzzling over that one.