Sermon for Sinai Synagogue, Parashat Vayera
It’s Always Time for Tea Time
I have a problem: I am addicted.
I always had an inclination towards this substance but it is you Brits who’ve send me over the edge. It is readily available and always on offer. It’s affordable, indulgent and easy. How can I say no... to a cup of tea?
Tea is everywhere. A gentle cup of Earl Grey wakes me up in the morning and a stout cup of Yorkshire tea sees me through a long day of classes. And there’s always a moment for a ginger infusion just before bed. I simply cannot express how much I love tea. And I have Britain to thank (and blame) for it.
There are many things to love about tea. There’s the obvious perk of caffeine, the nectar and ambrosia of graduate students and office dwellers alike. There’s the comfort of a steaming ceramic mug held in cupped hands. There’s the pomp and ceremony of a proper Afternoon Tea. And like most converts, I am a bit fanatic about it. I probably love tea more than the British. What is there not to love about scones (did I pronounce it right?) clotted cream and the cutest little sandwiches known to humankind?
Lest you think I obsess over tea and this sermon becomes completely silly, the reason I love tea the most is because of the values it represents. Serving tea is a small but warm gesture of ‘gemilut chasadim’ – an outpouring of typical British ‘hachnassat orchim’, hospitality.
Of course Avraham Avinu would not have put the kettle on the stove for a ‘cuppa’, but we do know that he served ‘curds and milk and a tender calf’ - ‘chem’ah v’chalav u’ben habakar’ (Gen. 18:8) - when three mysterious men revealed themselves at the entrance of his tent.
It is in this Parashat Vayera that Abraham’s legendary hospitality makes itself known. Only three verses back, in last week’s Parashah, Abraham circumcised himself and his kin. Now, on a hot day, Abraham is recovering in the shadow of his tent. We can only imagine how miserable he must have felt.
Even so, he immediately sprang to action when three anonymous men approached him. He offered them water for bathing and the choicest of foods. He did not demand to know who they were or what the purpose of their visit was. If Abraham would have been a Brit, sitting on the curb in front of his house, looking out at the drizzling rain, I am sure he would have welcomed his guests with PG Tips – or better yet – Fortnum and Mason’s Royal Blend!
The Talmud identifies hachnassat orchim – the welcoming of guests – as a key expression of gemilut chasadim. The Gemara (Bavli Sukkot 49b) engages in a lively debate: what is preferred? Tzedakah, an appropriate redress of social imbalances or gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness? Intuitively, one would opt for tzedakah. Is it not better to pay workers a living wage, aid the poor and heal the sick rather than pouring whimsical cups of tea for guests? And yet, Rabbi Eleazar decides that deeds of loving kindness are preferable – because we go beyond the letter of the law and do not expect reward. The ultimate gemilut chesed then, is burying the dead because certainly they can’t repay you!
The key to understanding this lies in personal transformation. We can legislate workers’ rights and impose socially just laws. But the political stays political. It is easy for new social norms to be taken for granted and to be neglected. Gemilut chasadim, however, engages us in a deeper and more personal way, calling us to individual accountability. The personal is political. Of course, one should not get mired down in navel-gazing; on the contrary. Gemilut chasadim hosts our idealism. It opens the door and offers it a seat at the table of our conscience. The moment we transform our own actions and immediate surroundings, we may very well feel empowered to make bigger and bolder changes yet.
It is no surprise then that the same Parashah that opens with a mundane story of Abraham feeding his guests, leads into the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative. Only when Abraham experienced the personal transformation through providing his guests with loving kindness, was he able to see their divine humanity fully revealed, as the verb ‘vayera’ suggests. Once you see the Divine Image in the faces of those near and dear you, it becomes easier to translate that concern for humanity as a whole. Only then did he have the courage of his conviction to argue for the depraved denizens of Sodom. His ‘gemilut chasadim’ provided a launching pad for his audacious call to tzedakah – justice: ‘hashofet kol ha’aretz lo ya’aseh mishpat?’ - ‘shall not the Judge of all the earth act justly?’
But the ironic symmetries do not end there. Abraham’s great virtue was hospitality. Sodom’s great vice was the lack thereof. Both Ezekiel (16:49) and the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah 49:6) explain that ‘the great outcry’ (tza’akat) was on account of Sodom’s oppression of the poor. It is ‘middah k’neged middah’ – measure for measure.
But not only that. The Rabbis of the Talmud created an ideal moral category of ‘lifnim meshurat hadin’ – ‘going beyond the letter of the law’, which is a logical outflow from gemilut chasadim. This to counter its greatest opposite: the principle of ‘middat sedom’, ‘the character of Sodom’, where the law is abused to oppress and where original ideals of tzedakah and mishpat become unhinged and corrupted.
Gemilut chasadim and the principle of lifnim meshurat hadin, then, are the counterweight to cynicism and self-interest that can slip into legalised cruelty. Our sacred and random acts of kindness can tip the balance towards a kinder world.
So next time you invite someone round for a cup of tea, consider the import of a gesture so small. A friend, a relative, a lonely soul, a congregant, a stranger. Invite people into your homes and hearts. Imagine a world where all are seated around the table of righteousness, enjoying the feast of kindness. All great things start small, when the humanity and divinity of each of us is revealed.