November 12, 2008
Look up to see angels
Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
Vayera is a rich portion throughout, but I linger on the iconic images in the first lines: Abraham sits at the opening of his tent in the heat of the desert
day, recovering from his circumcision. He looks up and sees God, in the form of three men, often described as angels, standing nearby. Abraham rushes to welcome them and offer hospitality. They, in turn, provide comfort for his convalescence.
These images could be the cover art for manuals for our caring communities, bikkur cholim associations and chevrat kadishah (burial societies). These illustrations of mutual generosity, which provided the rabbis of the Talmud with role models for the prescribed human behavior of "walking in God's way," could also illuminate instruction books for our social justice projects. I pray that they can be emblems for America as it rises to greet an era of compassion and caring.
Abraham's bounteous welcome and the reassuring visit of the men/angels provide archetypes, embodying our injunction to act in imitation of God. We Jews literally begin our day by affirming in full voice the practices of a caring community. These activities, as well as others, such as "performing acts of lovingkindness," and "making peace where there is strife," are enumerated in each morning's liturgy. Every day, we recite these directions for holy behavior, along with the promise that these deeds will be rewarded both "in this world and in the world to come."
While world-to-come" benefits are enticing, I am most concerned with rewards in this world. Having been lucky enough to visit caring communities throughout the world, I have observed the most successful ones are those that emphasize both the caring and the community. Their success is measured not just by gallons of chicken soup served, hospital beds visited or acts of social justice advocacy, but also by the longevity of the participation of the volunteers, the strength of their relationships with each other and the sense of personal satisfaction and growth that those volunteers receive from their involvement with the community. The rewards of community and individual fulfillment are the "this world" bonuses promised by the liturgy.
I believe that the people who provide the most comfort to others serve from a stance of altruistic self-interest. This paradoxical phrase implies that those who serve do so not just to "help the unfortunates" or "give something back," but also because they recognize that in helping others they learn about themselves and have an opportunity to grow. They know that comforting a mourner may remind them of their own unfinished grief issues or that visiting a sick person might expose their own fears of vulnerability. They know that serving meals at a homeless shelter may raise questions about their own values or those of their neighbors. They know, as well, that confronting these issues in the company of others will make them deeper, stronger people, more able to serve others and more at peace with what it means to be human. They discover that those who best serve others cultivate their hearts of wisdom through companionship when they return to their caring colleagues to speak of what they have witnessed in others and what it has taught them about themselves. They debrief together. They study together. And they pray together.
These successful caregivers and community advocates know that, as the Talmud tells us, we serve round things in a house of shiva because "like the pea, sorrow rolls. Today's mourner is tomorrow's comforter and today's comforter is tomorrow's mourner."
There is no condescension in service to those in need. There is a recognition that, as Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav said, "All the world is a narrow bridge." All of us must cross that bridge. Our greatest gift to each other and to ourselves is to provide and find companionship on that narrow bridge.
We train caregivers and community advocates to recognize the commonality of human experience by asking them to look into the eyes of others in the room and see not just the superficial things that differentiate us and may cause us to have pity on challenged individuals but the spark of God that we all share. Then, we instruct them to ask each other, "What is it that keeps you up at night?" This invitation to share deepest concerns helps to identify situations and issues that need our attention.
Volunteers refine their ability to hear the needs of others as they decide which actions they will take to provide support and healing for individuals and the community. This form of "leadership by listening" has roots in the community organization techniques of the Industrial Areas Foundation, where President-elect Barack Obama began his career. "Leadership by listening" was the foundation of his campaign. Volunteers were instructed to call voters and listen to their concerns rather than tell them what they should believe. Moved by what they heard, they turned to each other when they hung up the phones. Sharing their experience, they built a community that is much deeper than a campaign.
As we sit at the opening of our tents, nursing the wounds of war, fear and economic distress, may we lift our eyes and perceive a new era for our country. May we, like Abraham the Patriarch, be comforted by the appearance of what Abraham Lincoln called, "the better angels of our nature" as they come to transform our country into the caring community for which we pray every day.