As a native New Yorker I fondly remember the iconic advertising posters on the NYC subway system that pictured an Indian chief dressed in headdress biting into a slice of kosher rye bread. The caption read, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s Real Jewish Rye.” I realize that in this day and age it would be deemed politically incorrect, but years ago it was progressive, humorous advertising. In all honesty, it made me feel proud of being Jewish despite my unsophisticated palate that found bread laden with caraway seeds unappetizing. I never encountered a Native American (with the exclusion of Tonto, but he was always behind glass) in my neighborhood, and a trip to an Indian Reservation was never on my family’s bucket list, but that subway ad remains a constant visual implanted on my brain.
In this week’s portion the story is told of Abraham, who after undergoing circumcision (sans anesthetic) is visited by the Almighty himself. He sees three nomads in the distance and hurries to greet and invite them to his humble abode. The commentaries maintain that Abraham assumed they were idol worshipers, but did not hesitate to invite them. The Talmud deduces from the story that inviting guests is of such paramount importance that it takes precedence over receiving the Almighty himself. As intriguing as the sight of God sitting with Abraham may play out in Hollywood, it just can’t resonate with modern people today. I unequivocally can state that the Almighty has never visited with me and it’s not because Delray Beach is off the beaten track; these things don’t occur in our world. Thus, the story line as told has limited relevance to us.
Yet, if we look at Abraham from our perspective, we find a person with a strong belief willing to dedicate his life to God. Yet we also find a person who is strong enough in his conviction that he is able to confront modernity instead of hiding from it. He has confidence in himself and is unconcerned that bringing alien influences into his surrounds will counter his belief system. I parallel his story with the Judaism of today and am surprised how much our world has changed; how our spiritual self-confidence has declined to the point where we are fearful of the outside world. Often very observant Jews live in ghettoized enclaves wanting nothing from the outside (except for money) and are unwilling to interact in society. Is isolation and segregation congruent with Torah values?
Abraham undertook to bring monotheism to the world, but realized that first we have to open our hearts and soul to all. Even a casual perusal of the text will find that his choice of meal included milk and meat, the two food groups that are prohibited from being eaten together. He may have done so solely for the purpose of not trying to change them; to merely show friendship and solidarity with no ulterior motive. If people would have a better understanding of true Judaism, then their fear and distrust would dissipate. Anti-Semitism is strengthened by stereotypes that are never challenged by creating mass hysteria over the fear of the unknown. Imagine how life altering it may have been if the Indian chief would have had been invited to a Shabbat meal. Imagine the incredible impact the glow of the flickering Shabbat candles; the ambiance of the set table creating a feeling of serenity and tranquility. The overwhelming smell of the fresh baked challah or the delectable piping hot chicken soup with kneidlach (matzah balls), do you really think he would be content eating rye bread? OK, the Manischewitz wine and gefilte fish would still be a challenge. Imagine how it would change his attitude towards Judaism. He would see that Judaism is not imbued with hatred, insensitivity, and intolerance, but is an open and inviting option. Of course he may find your lifestyle too restrictive but would probably respect you even more.
Two weeks ago (although due to the season our shul was not involved) there was a global Shabbat project aimed at trying to bring the Jewish world together for one Shabbat. It was a resounding success and will hopefully become an annual event. Yet perhaps equally important would be to have a true global Shabbat; a weekend when we invite those of other faiths to participate and experience the inner beauty of Judaism. It would be a weekend in which the talk is not about politics or religion, and where condemnation and denigration of anyone would be off limits. Our table would be alight with Shabbat candles, radiating warmth and conveying to the world that we are truly the nation of Abraham and a light unto all.
Rabbi Jack Engel