Finding Spiritual Bliss
This week’s Torah portion opens with the aftermath of God’s commandment to Abraham to circumcise himself and all the males of his household that appeared at the end of last week’s parsha. Abraham was not a youngster when he got this commandment; 8-day olds are much luckier in this regard. He was understandably in much pain and recovering from the procedure when the Torah narrates that God Himself paid him a sick-visit much the way we might visit someone in a hospital – the mitzvah we call bikkur cholim.
Despite his difficulties Abraham does not take sick leave and he insists on sitting at the entrance of his tent looking for travelers to assist, thus living up to his reputation as a ba’al chesed, one who will do the utmost to fulfill the needs of another and help them out. The Torah tells us:
God appeared to Abraham in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. Abraham ran to meet them and said, “Please Lord (or lord), if I have found favor in your eyes, do not pass from before me. Let some water be brought to wash your feet and recline underneath this tree. I will bring some bread and you will be satisfied, then you may go on your way.”
The commentaries are at odds as to how to properly read the Torah’s narration of Abraham’s request, “Please Lord/lord if I have found favor in your eyes, do not pass from before me”. The simple meaning is that he was addressing the strangers (lower case, lord) asking that they not pass by so he could help them out. However, others read it that he was talking to God (upper case, Lord) requesting that He not go away as he helps out these folks.
According to this second interpretation, it displays a surprising behavior on Abraham’s part. Here we have Abraham in the midst of a visitation from God Almighty and yet he chooses to interrupt the visit to see if some perfect strangers need his assistance. In essence, Abraham puts God on hold to deal with passing travelers whom he has never known and will probably never see again.
Now imagine if God were to visit you and the phone rings, someone knocks at your door or you get a text. Would you tell God, “Wait a minute” and proceed to see what the requesting party might need? Would you interrupt one of the most meaningful events of your life – one that would probably change it forever – to see what a passing stranger may lack? I understand that it is nice and noble to help out others, but is it so important that you would blow off a visit from God Almighty?
The Talmud sanctions this curious behavior of Abraham by commenting, “Greater is hospitality to strangers than having a personal meeting with God.” Whaaat?! For real? Are you honestly trying to tell me that meeting God face to face is less of an awesome experience than helping another bloke? Hey, I get it, it’s nice to be a nice guy – but greater than having a one-on-one with the Almighty, Creator of the Universe? I think most people wouldn’t interrupt their private session with LeBron James for such a thing, let alone God!
My rabbi, Rav Noah Weinberg zt”l used to explain this by saying, Greater than meeting God Himself is being like God. He was pointing out that this episode in Abraham’s life shows that there is a deeper expression of relating to God, even moreso than meeting Him face to face – and that is acting like Him. Being like him. Imitating Him.
I can go to a concert or view a wonderful piece of artwork and that makes me feel good and I certainly feel a connection to the musician or artist during those moments. But you know what is an even greater way to connect with him or her? If I actually study music or art and try to mimic his methods and learn from them or paint the way he paints. This puts me on a whole different relationship with the artist or musician since I am now, on some level, akin to them rather than just a spectator of their work. You can get much enjoyment watching an amazing tennis player like Federer but you will get even more if you regularly play tennis and have an appreciation of the talents and shots he is able to make.
Meeting God is great, but it is passive and has its limitations. However being like God is greater and limitless in connecting with Him.
People are always looking for spiritual experiences. They look for it in many different places. Some go to the mountains of Tibet; some study Kabbalah; some think drugs will give them a high that will put them in touch with a loftier enlightenment. The number of books available about spirituality are too numerous to count. New-age and old-age religions abound that offer one to get in touch with their innermost being, or an outermost Being, and this will allegedly change their lives forever.
Abraham – the father of monotheism, the man who taught us about relating to God and not to gods, who had a pretty good understanding of God and met Him on many occasions – teaches us an important lesson in our quest for spirituality. Spirituality is found in the subtle acts of kindness that greet us daily more than in the dramatic spiritual highs that many seek. Godliness is not always in the lofty mystical heights and indeed too often we see people get so self-absorbed in their spiritual searchings that their loved ones suffer and are ignored and neglected, left in the dust of another’s narcissistic spiritual quest.
If you truly wish to meet God you need not go further than to caress your child’s cheek while you show her patience when helping with her homework, or to hold the door for the person behind you, or to let someone in your lane on the highway, or to offer the gardener a drink, or to tip a little beyond the minimum to the struggling server at the restaurant, or the thousands of other opportunities available to each and every one of us to be like God.
Meeting God face to face may not change your life forever, but acting like Him certainly will.
No guru, no method, no teacher
Just you and I and nature
And the Father in the Garden