Parshat Vayera

Torah Reading for Week of November 1-7, 2009

“Seeing G-d in Ourselves and Others”
by Rabbi Anne Brener
AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Human Development

Va-yera, the parasha that begins with G-d appearing to Abraham (va-yera alav YHVH) is rich throughout, but I linger on the iconic images in the first lines, which could be used as cover art for manuals for our Caring Communities, Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) Associations, and Chevri Kadisha (burial societies). Sitting at the opening of his tent, in the heat of the desert day, while recovering from his circumcision, Abraham saw G-d, in the form of the three men standing nearby. Abraham rushed to welcome them and offer hospitality. They, in turn, provided comfort for his convalescence.

This mutual generosity provided the Rabbis of the Talmud with illustrations for the prescribed human behavior of “walking in G-d’s way,” which they understood to mean that we are to walk after G-d’s attributes- to act in imitation of G-d. Abraham’s bounteous welcome and the reassuring visit of the men to the recovering patriarch became role models for fulfilling this injunction. Their reciprocal kindness emphasizes that the benefits of compassion extend in two directions- enhancing the experiences of both caregivers and the recipients of care.

Each morning, we begin our day by affirming in full voice the practices of a caring community. Our liturgy reminds us of the rewards of these activities, as well as others, such as “rejoicing with bride and groom,” “attending the house of study,” and “honoring parents,” that are enumerated each morning as we begin our Morning Prayer service. We recite these directions for holy behavior along with the promise that these deeds will earn us points both “in this world and in the world-to-come.”

I will leave the rewards in the “world-to-come” for future exploration. I am most interested in the rewards we get in this world. Having been lucky enough to visit Caring Communities throughout the world, I have observed that the ones that are most successful are the ones that emphasize both the caring and the community. Their success is measured, not just by the gallons of chicken soup served or number of hospital beds visited, but also by the longevity of the participation of the volunteers, the strength of their relationships with each other, and the sense of personal satisfaction and growth that those volunteers receive from their involvement with the community. The rewards of community and individual fulfillment are the “this word” bonuses promised by the liturgy.

I have come to believe that the people who provide the most comfort to others have two qualities in common: altruistic self-interest and an ability to see, like Abraham, G-d’s presence in others. The paradoxical phrase “altruistic self-interest” has many implications. It suggests that those who serve others do so, not just “to help the unfortunates” or “to give something back,” but also because they recognize that in helping others they learn about themselves and have an opportunity to grow beyond their comfort zone. They know that comforting a mourner may remind them of unfinished grief issues in their own lives or that visiting a sick person might expose them to their own fears of vulnerability. But they know, as well, that confronting these issues will make them deeper, stronger people, more able to serve others and more at peace with what it means to be human. Our sages say that “he who thinks of death improves himself” and that more wisdom can be attained in a house of mourning than a house of revelry. Those who best serve others cultivate their hearts of wisdom and find companionship when they return to their caring committees to speak of what they have witnessed in others and what it has taught them about themselves. They de-brief together. They study together. They pray together. And, together, they do the soul work that will offer them strength when they face life’s challenges.

These successful caregivers know that, as the Talmud tells us, the round things served in a house of Shiva, are not just emblematic of the cycle of life. They also remind us that “Like the pea, sorrow rolls. Today’s mourner is tomorrow’s comforter and today’s comforter is tomorrow’s mourner.” There is no condescension in service to those in need. There is a recognition that, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, “all the world is a narrow bridge.” And our greatest gift to each other- and to ourselves- is to provide- and find- companionship on that narrow bridge.

I learned about the second quality, the ability to see G-d in others, when I began my career as a psychotherapist, twenty-five years ago. I attended a lecture given by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and other wonderful books. She revealed that when she first met with a patient, she silently said to herself, “The G-d in me, salutes the G-d in you.” This became my own practice, as I imagined Abraham reciting this phrase to himself as the three mysterious beings approached and he ran to serve them, propelled by his understanding that he was welcoming The Holy One. I imagine the beings themselves recognizing the Holiness that lived within Abraham as he approached and bid them welcome. The G-d in Abraham embraced the G-d in the visitors – uniting sparks of Holiness and lighting up the place at the opening of the tent, as they constituted the first Caring Community. Eager to serve G-d, Abraham saw the presence of G-d in the weary travelers, who reciprocated by seeing the same in the suffering Abraham. This mutual experience of healing is what we seek when we constitute organizations to perform those mitzvot detailed in the morning liturgy which reach out to people in need of community support. These people could be brides, mourners, or any others who face the challenges that come in times when lives are changing.

When we prepare student clergy as well as laity to do this work, one of the first things we ask of them is to look in to the eyes of others in the room. We ask them to see, as Abraham and his visitors saw, not just the superficial things that make all of us different and can cause us to distance ourselves from those who face challenges, regarding them with condescension and pity in a way that does not lift their spirits and bring healing. We ask them to see instead the spark of G-d that we all share. Our students look at each other and appreciate the presence of Holiness, as it resides in the souls of those who have come to walk in G-d’s ways. Seeing YHVH in others, they also see YHVH in themselves. Va-yera alav YHVH!

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