Shabbat Shalom everybody and welcome to my Bat Mitzvah.
This week’s Parashah is Parashat Vayera which is in Sefer Bereshit, the Book of Genesis. These past few Parashiot we have been whizzing quickly through the first generations since creation. Last week, we met Avraham – the first man to independently decide he believed in one God. All our Avot (fathers) and Imahot (mothers) are defined by particular character traits they were strong in. Avraham is known for his great acts of chesed (kindness) and, having studied my Parashah carefully, I would like to share some thoughts we can learn from Vayera on the idea of chesed.
We start our Parashah with Avraham sitting in the entrance to his tent speaking to Hashem as he recovers from his Brit Milah. In the distance, he sees three travellers and he interrupts his conversation with God to run towards them. He begs them to stay for a while and allow him to serve them as they rest – an offer they accept. It is a short scene, but there is a lot we can learn here from Avraham’s behaviour. Firstly, the way he hurries out to greet them shows us that he is enthusiastic and he doesn’t wait for them to ask him for help. Avraham is an active giver. He knows that it isn’t enough to passively wait for chances to give. He wants to go out of his way to do the right thing so he sits in the entrance to his tent – which the Midrash tells us was open on all four sides – looking for travellers in the distance. Secondly, we can analyse the way he greets the travellers. He bows down and says to them, “My lords, if it pleases you, please do not pass by me”. Usually, when someone is in a position to help another person, they can feel superior because the other person is depending on them. However, Avraham wants his guests to feel respected and valued. He wants to show them that he sees chesed as an opportunity. Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik studied this passage and said that Avraham’s actions teach us that although tzedakah is a positive mitzvah, it shows sympathy without equality. Rabbi Soloveichik says welcoming guests means you see the dignity and equal importance of other humans.
Looking closer at Avraham’s actions, the pasukim are filled with a whole variety of verbs. Avraham sees the travellers; runs towards them; bows to them; speaks to them; offers to bring them water and food and wash their feet; hurries to get it; takes a calf; gives them their meal and stands by them at their service. This long list of details seems to be a bit over the top. However, when we do acts of chesed, every little detail matters. When you are really motivated to give, you care about every part of your giving. No part of it is done thoughtlessly or without care and love. We can also notice the difference between what Avraham says and what he does. Avraham offers to get his visitors some water and a morsel of bread, but then he runs off and instructs Sarah to make fresh cakes whilst he goes to the cattle and fetches his best calf, and prepares the meat and cream, before serving it to the travellers. This shows us that Avraham is the sort of person who says a little but does a lot. Rather than talking up his own generosity, he knows that actions speak louder than words.
There is an interesting way of looking at this whole event. This incident is usually given as the prime example of Avraham’s kindness. But as we discover, these travellers are really Malachim (angels), and Malachim don’t need food and drink because they aren’t physical beings. This is the main time that the Torah really emphasises Avraham’s chesed and it’s not even needed! The Torah is teaching us an important lesson about our actions. All our actions have two parts – the act itself and the intention we have behind it. For example, imagine you are walking past a shop and see a scruffy looking man sitting on the floor outside. You go into the shop and buy them something to eat and drink and place it in front of them on your way out. A minute later, they catch up with you down the street saying, “Thank you for the food but I think you’re mistaken. I’m just waiting for my friend and I just look scruffy because I haven’t shaved in a week!” You may not have given them something they needed, but you will be spiritually rewarded for your generous and sincere intentions. The opposite would also be true. Imagine you see a child sitting by themselves in the playground and you go to them and invite them to play with you. Your actions have made a positive difference to their lives – but what if you’re only doing it because you know the teacher is watching and that they’ll give you a reward for it? They may be happy now, but your intentions were not as sincere so it has less of a spiritual impact. Even though Avraham couldn’t physically benefit the Malachim, the Torah is telling us that our intentions are an important part of our giving.
There is a second event in this Parashah which, in a different way, illustrates Avraham’s care for other people. Hashem tells Avraham that He wants to destroy the city of Sodom because of their negative behaviour. Strangely, Avraham then starts bargaining with Hashem to get Him to change His mind and save the city if Avraham can find righteous people there. Avraham bargains Hashem down from 50 people to 10 people. The people of Sodom represented the opposite of the ideals that Avraham spent so much time teaching the world – maybe Avraham could have been forgiven for allowing Hashem to destroy people who lived like that. But despite this, Avraham had a love for other human beings which went above and beyond his individual values. Chessed isn’t just helping your friends, or even reaching out to strangers you have no particular feeling towards. True chesed is when you extend your kindness to people you don’t get along with – even your enemies. In fact there is a mitzvah later in the Torah – in Parashat Mishpatim – which seems to relay this same message. We are taught that if we see our enemy’s donkey struggling with its load, we must offer our help. Obviously nowadays, we hope we don’t live our lives with enemies, and additionally, we are unlikely to have enemies with donkeys either way – but the lesson is the same. We should look to move past our personal feelings and help anybody who needs our help.
In my life, I have always tried to be a kind person and a caring friend, and I look out for chances to be involved with giving. When I was in Wolfson Hillel I was an enthusiastic member of the Tzedakah Squad – a team of children who promoted the school’s monthly charities. Additionally, when my mum took me to Israel for my Bat Mitzvah trip, we visited the Pantry Packers warehouse and filled bags of coffee beans. It was amazing to be able to help families in need in a practical way. I hope to always find opportunities to reach out to other people and support the charities I care about. In particular, because I am passionate about looking after animals, I am planning on donating some of my Bat Mitzvah money to the World Wildlife Fund.
On a deeper level, learning this Parashah has shown me the true meaning of the concept of chesed. I now have a greater understanding of how my intentions make a huge difference to my giving. I don’t want to be kind for a reward – on the contrary, when I’m kind with sincere intentions then I am rewarded inside with the positive feeling I have from knowing I wasn’t looking for a reward! I also hope to live up to Avraham’s example by caring about all the details of my giving and not just talking about giving without actually doing it.
I would like to thank my Bat Mitzvah teacher Jo Jacobson for her guidance, wisdom and inspiration in preparing for today.
I’d like to finish with one final idea. It seems odd that Avraham would interrupt his conversation with Hashem to go and welcome three random travellers. What could possibly be more important than speaking with Hashem?! The greatest thing we can do is not to speak to Hashem, but in fact to emulate Hashem. Hashem is the ultimate giver and every time we give, we ignite the spiritual spark of Hashem that is inside us and connects it to the spark inside another. When we give, we don’t end up with less, we end up with more than we ever had before.