I invite you to take a moment to clear your mind, breathe and bit, center yourself, and let a question sit within for a bit.
Here’s the question:
Where were you, when God laid the foundations of the earth?
Let the answer come to you. When you’re ready, open your eyes.
Now think to yourself of a moment when you felt closely connected to God, to the Divine, to the holy One. What was that experience like for you, if you’ve had one? If not take a moment to think of a time when you’ve felt deeply connected to another person, when maybe you’ve had a sense of being part of something much larger than yourself.
And with that we turn to Chapter 18 of Genesis, or even imagine encapsulating the 4 chapters from 18-22, the torah portion Vayera – And God Appeared. God appears to Abraham, and then three angel/men arrive, who foretell the birth of Isaac to the 90 year old Sarah, then Abraham argues with God about the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah – looking for righteous people who would be worth saving. And finally, Abraham takes Isaac to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice him on the altar of God, until another angel stops his hand. At the last moment.
I want us to spend some time with the portion’s elegant, mysterious, mystical beginning:
The Holy One of Blessing appeared to Abraham by the terebinths of Mamre as he sat by the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. And he lifted his eyes and looked, and lo! Three men appeared before him. And then Abraham said, Adonai – if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not move on… Tarry awhile.
There is a debate about a key word in these verses, the one I left in Hebrew: Adonai – the word Jews substitute for the unpronounceable name of God in scripture, the tetragrammaton; the Hebrew that you usually see translated as the Lord, yud hay vav hay – a name for God. It’s just a stand in, not the real word, because we try not to take the name of God in vain. A discussion for another time. But the word we substitute is Adonai, which also means, in respect to humans – My Lord as in Sir.
In this case, the word is actually spelled out in Hebrew; it’s not the tetragrammaton. In those verses where it is spelled out, translators have to decide whether it refers to God or to a person. This is important in these verses because we want to know—who is Abraham addressing when he asks their leave? Is he talking to God, who was the first to appear to Abraham? Or was he talking to the men? Or all of the above?
God came in his moment of need, three days past surgery, making a house call, checking up on his friend, Avram, the patient. You know that moment when one person is visiting you, and your phone rings? Do you take the call or let it go unanswered, or to the machine? Or when you are having a cozy visit with one person and another one shows up? What do you say to the first person? How does that person feel?
But let’s go back to Abraham. Is he talking to God or the angel-men? Many commentators lean toward God, rather than the angel-men.
What was it like, those moments when God appeared? Jewish tradition has many stories or midrash to fill in. My favorite is that God had unsheathed the sun to make it really hot in the afternoon so that no one would visit Abraham, so that he could rest after surgery. Because Abraham was known for his hospitality, and God knew he would have trouble staying still to heal. But when God arrived, it was apparent to the Holy Chaplain that Abraham was miserable in his loneliness: many of us want people to come visit in our moments of illness, right? But the misery of the patient was such that God relented, and the three men or angels appeared.
But I keep wondering — how did God appear to Abraham, in that moment before the three men? Maimonides, the great medieval thinker, proposed that God appeared and directed the entire scene – indeed, according to him, the whole encounter until the discussion about Sodom and Gomorrah was part of a prophetic vision. All that busy-ness – preparing the meal, baking the bread, making the cheese, slaughtering the animal, washing the angel/men’s feet, listening to the prediction of Sarah’s delivery of a baby—all that was vision. Nachmanides, who was 10 years old when Maimonides died in 1204, disagreed for the most part—to him, the very essence of the business of serving the guests could NOT have been a holy vision, but some of the words could have been.
But then I keep wondering—how did Abraham perceive God? This is the mysterious, the mystical aspect of the sacred text, that we often pass over on our way to other parts of the portion. Abraham was in God’s presence, God who had come to make a house call. Even so, or maybe especially so, when guests appeared, Abraham asked God to wait. And God apparently did, because they kept returning to the conversation.
Other commentators wonder if the angel-men aren’t indeed the human manifestation of God… And though God’s presence would be so powerful and overwhelming for us humans that we need a less awesome way to experience the divine. And so the men are God made palatable to us, or perceivable to us.
Because the Adonai – my lords – that Abraham uses refers to God, the divine, not people.
Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, may his memory be a blessing, in the book, The December Project, asks the question, “What is the spirituality we need for this time? And when he says “this time” he means the December of our years.
He comments that it’s important to give yourself solitude—time to just sit and not do anything. He believed that intuition is more important at this time than thinking, and we need a container for intuition. He mentions tools for contemplation: prayer, meditation and reflection… And gives an example: Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense during the Vietnam War, finally admitted that he’d been wrong to escalate that conflict—when he was 90…because he’d had the time to reflect.
Reb Zalman goes on to note that when he invites God into his heart, what he was trying to do was create a space to go to recalibrate his truth and his goodness.
So what does it look like, when God appears to you? Does it happen in the midst of prayer, or meditation or reflection or when you are out in nature, or listening to music, for those of you heading to the symphony this afternoon?
For some of us, the answer is None of the Above – God doesn’t appear. And we weren’t there when the foundations of the earth were created. And that’s okay too. One way of looking at the story of the angel-men is that WE are each a version of the holy: we are what makes holiness manifest of the earth. When we act like the hands, the arms, the hearts of the divine, and that’s enough.
Jews tell a story or a midrash that every Jew who would ever be – all our souls were together at Sinai, when God spoke the Ten Commandments to us. Some of us hear whispers of the commandments or of the experience when we meet people we’ve never known before and yet feel right at home with them. Indeed, some people take that to the next step: we must have been standing near each other at Sinai.
And sometimes that’s how I see the connection to God appearing—we have a knowingness, an awareness, an intuition of something we can’t lay our fingers on… We just know something firmly in our hearts, we recalibrate our truth. We understand something that seemed impossible before as a certainty—like Sarah becoming pregnant with Isaac. Or we know that we have to stand up for what we believe in—like the argument over Sodom and Gomorrah. You remember: how can God wipe out righteous people? If there are 50, 45, 35, ten…
And so, let’s take another moment, centered in your seats… Close your eyes and listen to the still, small voice within, breathe, breathe… What image of God appears to you?
May you hold that image before you as you move through your week.
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