judaism · sermon · theology · torah

Go for yourself

Trying to get by with biblical Hebrew with modern Hebrew speakers is difficult. Among a group in Jerusalem this summer, I tried to coax out a dog, saying “Lech lecha, celev.” The Israelis around me burst out laughing. “What? What did I say?” I asked. “Nothing,” they said. “It doesn’t mean anything.”

I had just repeated the first words of our parashah, when God instructs Abraham to get out of Haran and go to Canaan. Without context, the expression was bizarre. Phrases that were once meaningful in this language can lose their sense. But, for our commentators throughout history, this specific phrase has been perplexing. Without the vowels we might think it is emphatic – a repetition of the same verb, telling Abraham “go, go, get out.” But the Masoretic markings are quite clear. This is not “lech lech” but “lech lecha” – which could be read ‘go to yourself’, or ‘go for yourself’, or ‘go as yourself’… It is a strange construction.

Ramban suggests that it’s just an idiom of biblical Hebrew. He points to other examples in Jeremiah and Deuteronomy where similar constructions are used. But that answer feels disappointing. Why this idiom? And why here? Every idiom has a purpose, even if that purpose isn’t even entirely clear to the native speaker.

The answer I like best comes from Rashi. Rashi says “go for your own benefit, for your own advantage”. This puts the rest of the sentence into context: “and all the families of the earth shall be blessed through you.” Don’t go for their sake. Go for your own sake. But when you go for your own sake, when you go knowing that you are seeking out a blessing for yourself, then everyone will receive that blessing too.

It calls to mind the distinction between charity and solidarity. That idea was summarised by Lilla Watson, an Australian indigenous rights activist, in her address to the UN Women’s Conference in Nairobi in 1985: “If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Watson herself has challenged the attribution, saying that it was thinking that had come out of collective work by indigenous women in Queensland over a long period of time.

Indeed, differentiating between charity and solidarity has long been a feature of thought for oppressed peoples. Charity, seeking to help people for their own sake without any regard for your own, is surely a noble feeling. But it leaves the person who gives it feeling better than the one who receives it. For the one who gives it, it leaves them feeling helpful, assuages their conscience, and contributes to a sense that they are doing the right thing. For the recipient, it can leave them feeling powerless, pitied, supported, and not treated as a full human being.

Charity is ultimately, too, not that helpful to the one giving it. It turns human interaction into a form of sacrifice, based on guilt, self-effacement and pity. It forces people to ignore their own lived realities and struggles, and put themselves at a position of distance from others.

While charity can address material needs in a positive way, it reminds everyone of the power relations that caused the need for charity in the first place. It reminds the donor of their power and the receiver of their lack. It can even reinforce those structures, as the impoverished turn to the donors as a source of wealth rather than looking to their own talents. The donor can impose restrictions on how the money is used or on how the receiver might conduct themselves in ways that ultimately secure the authority of the donor.

Solidarity asks us to “lech lecha” – to go for ourselves, to go as ourselves. It asks us to come to problems as full people with our own issues and concerns that we need to address. It asks us to treat everybody as if they, too, are going for themselves: full human beings who have a great deal in common with us and their own unique purposes.

Solidarity requires both parties to feel vulnerable together. It asks that the person motivated to give charity considers their own interests and what stake they have in changing the current circumstances. It also asks both parties to work together: they have a common interest and need to empower each other. Solidarity places people’s self-respect and cooperation at the centre of organising change.

Rambam picks up this theme in his eight levels of ‘tzedaka’. The word ‘tzedaka’ is often translated as ‘charity’, but it shares a common root with the word for ‘justice’. The concepts of charity and solidarity are held together by this same word, so Rambam needed to spell out the differences between different forms of giving. Like the indigenous activists of Australia, Rambam puts solidarity on a much higher level than charity. He considers “empowering others with meaningful employment” to be the highest level of tzedaka. Unlike giving into the hands of the poor, empowerment such as this ensures that everyone’s dignity is preserved, and everyone benefits from the work.

So it is that G-d says to Abraham: “Go for your own sake and all the families of the earth will be blessed through you.” When you go out considering your own self-respect first and foremost, it follows that everyone else can act from theirs. Abraham does not go out to save the world. He goes out to save himself. But by being prepared to take risks for his own soul, he sets an example and sets the wheels in motion that everybody can seek out G-d’s blessing.

That is how the nations became blessed through Abraham. As we approach the challenges of our day, we should seek to ask the same questions as he was forced to. What do I really need? What does G-d require of me? How can I see others as full human beings and respond to their needs? How can I go for myself, so as to be a blessing for others?

Go for yourself, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through you.

white horseman nahum gutman

I gave this sermon on the morning of Thursday 18th October at Leo Baeck College for Parashat Lech Lecha. 

judaism · sermon · torah

Being hospitable

It was a dark night in an Eastern European shtetl. Shabbat was just about to come in. The Baal Shem Tov sat at the dinner table, surrounded by friends and family. Every spare inch of space had somebody sitting in it. The Baal Shem Tov was not a rich man, although many of the acolytes of the movement he founded later would be, and he would have to make a thin chicken soup stretch to feed everyone. Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. Standing in the doorway was a vagabond. He smelt bad, his beard was unkempt, his clothes were untidy. He asked: “can I come in? Can I eat?” The Baal Shem Tov looked back at the full house, looked over at the steaming pot of thin chicken soup, looked back to the man, then up to Heaven and said: “If God has made enough room for him on this planet, then surely I have enough a room at my table.”

The Baal Shem Tov was a model of hospitality. In this week’s parshah, we read about Abraham, who was, too, a model of hospitality. Two strangers come to approach Abraham, and he cannot do enough for them. The Torah is usually noticeably scarce on detail, but on this occasion, we hear everything he did. He bowed, he welcomed them, he gave them water and bread-cakes, he washed their feet, he offered them shade. He even killed a calf for them, and in those days meat was far more expensive than it is today.

Abraham doesn’t even know who these people are yet. As it turns out, they are messengers of God. But they could have been anyone. Nevertheless, from the outset Abraham addresses them as if they are angels. Perhaps it was that Abraham could sense something in them. Perhaps he had been expecting God. But I think, most likely, Abraham simply saw the face of God in everyone.

Rashi tells us that Abraham always used to sit at the entrance to his house, so that he could invite anybody in who walked past. The midrash tells us that Sarah always had a listening ear. She was known everywhere for how tirelessly she worked to cultivate a garden for visitors to sit. Their tent was open on all sides, so that they could welcome people coming from every direction. And from this story, the rabbis derive a mitzvah, perhaps the most important commandment of all: the duty to be hospitable.

The next story in Genesis is a parallel. Two angels turn up in Sodom. Lot invites them to stay the night. Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surround the house. They threaten to assault their visitors. When Lot objects, they deride him for being a foreigner and try to break down the door. Lot offers his daughters up to the baying mob.

Although there is a modern Christian interpretation that the story of Sodom is in some way about homosexuality, the rabbis did not have such a tradition.  For them, this was a story about hospitality denied. This, they said, was a city so wicked that they would not even allow their residents to show any hospitality or compassion to strangers. This, they said, was a city where even neighbours were not kind to each other; where a dog-eat-dog ideology took root so that nobody worked together. This was a city so wicked that even people like Lot, who should have been righteous, ended up turning against their own daughters and denying them the childhood they deserved. That is why the angels destroyed Sodom.

Which city do we live in? Which house do we inhabit? I often wonder what the two angels would make of our neighbourhoods and homes if they came to visit. While we have more technology and medicine and infrastructure than the prophets and tsaddikim could ever have anticipated, we have just as many people in need of hospitality. Our society seems more isolated than ever.

Manchester is known for its hospitality, but even here we can see the isolation. We already know older people who live in loneliness. We already know younger people who are desperately reaching out for a community, only to find nothing. We have seen newcomers turn up in this city only to encounter racism, hostility and closed doors. We have all seen the number of rough sleepers on our streets rocket over recent years.

In that situation, we have the same choice that was facing Lot and Abraham. Will we throw open our doors to let people in, or will we take the cruelty we experience in society and turn it on the people in our own homes? Will we increase the love or increase the isolation? This is a societal problem, but it will only change if people welcome each other, get to know each other and build solidarity with each other.

So, we must start with ourselves and our own homes. Jewish life is not something that happens in the synagogue. The synagogue is just a place we come to get respite and reenergised as we live a Jewish life. Jewish life happens in what we do the rest of the time. If we spend the rest of our week building communities, showing hospitality and modelling loving-compassion, that is when we’re living Jewish lives. Hospitality is one of the most important mitzvahs because it affects how we interact with everything. Being welcoming to people helps to break down isolation. It helps to create a sense of community. And it makes better, kinder people of ourselves.

Let’s all make the effort to be better hosts and to give more time to each other. Choose to be like Abraham and Sarah. Choose to be like the Baal Shem Tov. As Jews, let’s be the people who decide not to let an isolating and inhospitable society last. The struggle for community begins here, with us.

besht

This sermon was first delivered Shabbat Vayeira, 3rd December, at Manchester Liberal Jewish Community