Me'or Eynayim on hospitality and going forth
November 29, 2007
The book Me'or Eynayim (by the Chernobyler Rebbe, who is often known as The Me'or Eynayim himself -- y'all remember the Chernobyler, right?) takes the form of a commentary on the Torah, portion by portion. This week in class we've been working on excerpts from his writings on parashat Lech lecha (Genesis 12:1-17:7) and parashat Vayera (18:1-22:24), which were read in shul about a month ago. Anyway, two of the ideas we've been studying are really striking to me. You may be familiar with the notion that when God tells Abraham lech-lecha, "go you forth" or "go forth from yourself," God is speaking on several levels at once. The command can be read on a literal or practical level (go out of the land you're in now, into someplace new), and it can also be read as an injunction to extend oneself in reaching out to others.
In the Hasidic understanding, Abraham is the patriarch associated with the quality of chesed, lovingkindness, and the Chernobyler has some beautiful things to say about how lovingkindness manifests in Abraham's famed hospitality. In parashat Vayera we read the story where Abraham is talking with God and three strangers appear, and Abraham rushes to offer them food and drink. Wouldn't you think that conversing with God trumps the need to greet strangers? Well, if you did, you'd be wrong, says the rebbe; in fact, it's written in the Talmud that hospitality to travelers is considered a greater mitzvah even than welcoming the presence of the Shekhinah, the divine presence manifest in the world. That's because when we welcome the stranger, we in fact are welcoming the presence of God, because there's a spark of God present in each of us, no matter who we are.
The Me'or Eynayim ties this all together by noting that God told Abraham to go down into Mitzrayim, Egypt / the Narrow Place, in order to uplift the divine sparks that had fallen there. And we know also that Abraham reached out to strangers in order to connect with the sparks of divinity that were in them. Abraham didn't hold himself back, keep himself on a pedestal, or refrain from engaging with the complicated, damaged, or profane world. On the contrary, he understood himself to be called by God to go forth, to meet people where they were -- even in narrow or unholy places -- and to recognize the holiness in the people he encountered.
We who understand ourselves to be children of Abraham are likewise called to go into places of constriction, into the tight places of sorrow and suffering and hurt, in order to find the holiness in them and lift that up. (As a once-and-future hospital chaplain, and for that matter presumably also a once-and-future hospital patient, I know both what it feels like to be in a tight place, and also what beauty can arise when I'm able to unlock some of the holiness hidden there.) And we're called to reach out to strangers, no matter who they may be, in a way that reflects the holiness inherent in them and in our encounter with them. We need to reach out to people in a way that's not condescending or distancing but connective, a way that honors the most sacred part of who they are.