Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Genesis:3 Project
He said, “My lord, please, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant.” Genesis 18:3
A few years ago, I engaged in a public conversation with a representative of an organization of Jewish Republicans. I presented a list of values from the legal teachings of the Talmud that are included in daily worship, and I made the claim that these formed the foundation of a progressive agenda for society. Among the values is “welcoming guests,” and it is derived from the moment described by verse above. The list is prefaced by the disclaimer that there are no limits on the practice of these values and that they benefit a person in his or her lifetime and are a moral investment in the future.
I concluded that a welcoming immigration policy was a societal mandate.
My partner in conversation replied with a terrific rejoinder, I thought. “The thing about guests,” he said, “is that they eventually go home.”
Certainly, in the context of this story, the guests who arrive at the tent of Abram (soon to be Abraham) are short-time visitors. They have come to deliver some messages about Abram’s future and the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and then, like the angelic messengers we presume them to be, they “get their wings” and disappear.
We have lots of ways to express the expectation that visitors not overstay their welcome. Ben Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanack, “Fish and visitors stink after three days.” Cynics will say, “Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry?” And the snarky “don’t let the door hit you in the backside on your way out” is a well-known piece of sarcasm.
But all of these attitudes are expressed as the attitudes of the hosts. Franklin and the anonymous wags are articulating the sense of imposition that visitors create after a certain amount of time. The guests may be inconsiderate or, like refugees, they may have nowhere else to go.
And that’s why Abram’s double use of “please” is important to notice. This quality of hospitality is not the one that says, like Mae West, “why don’t you come up and see me sometime?” It is an expression of invitation that rightly recognizes that Abram (and, by extension, Abram’s progeny – us) considers the guests to be enablers of right and proper conduct. Abram does not suggest that he is doing a favor to the sojourners who arrive at his tent. Instead, he asks them, please, please, to give him the opportunity live up to his better values.
I know that a lot of things have changed in this country since France sent us the gift of the Statue of Liberty over 130 years ago. The French recognized something about American values that Americans themselves occasionally had a hard time living up to. Emma Lazarus reluctantly composed a sonnet that was engraved for the statue, but by the time it was permanently mounted in 1903, the debates over immigrants had ebbed and flowed many times. Yet, Lady Liberty is named, in all capital letters, Mother of Exiles and famously declares a willingness to shine a light for the those tired and poor who bring no resources other than a yearning to breathe free.
It is not a welcome by sufferance. It is a declaration of what, for Americans, is right and proper. “Please, please,” says the representation of our hospitality, “send us those you consider wretched refuse. For us, they family, long-lost and newly-discovered.”
Abram was an immigrant to the land where he pitched his tent. The surrounding stories of his migration tell us he was embraced by some and resisted by others, but in the end, he made the decision that what he most needed would not be denied to others. Please, please make me live up to the promises I made to myself.
Maybe my partner in conversation is correct that the thing about guests is that they eventually go home. But when welcome is a matter of principle and radical in its intention, then when guests arrive they are home.
The Genesis:3 Project
Abram fell on his face and God said to him… Genesis 17:3
Words and phrases that morph into new meanings have fascinated me for a long time. Some words have related origins but different meanings in distinct contexts. “The soup is cool” and “That hat is cool” are two very different sentences. Some words develop different dominant meanings. The 1890’s were known as the Gay Nineties for different reasons than the 1990’s marked a focus on what it means to be gay. And some words can simultaneously mean almost the opposite of themselves depending on their usage.
Take the word “strut,” for example. If you use the word to describe a particular way of moving that is deliberate, ostentatious and designed to call attention, then you mean essentially the reverse of what a strut is in a structure – a brace that is meant to stabilize and secure.
Over time, the idiom “to fall on your face” has undergone that kind of transition. The image it provokes is pretty consistent; someone who is upright rapidly (with intention) or suddenly (without intention) ends up prone, front to the ground. But it makes a big difference whether the act is one resulting from humility or resulting in humiliation.
In contemporary times, it is the latter meaning that is more usual. A face-plant or prat fall is diminishing. The one who lands face-first on the ground is almost always a victim. When it seems somehow deserved, we cheer. When it seems somehow undeserved, we sympathize. When it is meant to be funny, we laugh. I once fell on my face when I stepped just the wrong way on an uneven piece of sidewalk downtown. I broke the frames on my glasses, which resulted in a gash next to my eye. I was in a suit, walking among people in various kinds of clothing. I imagine some of them had each type of reaction. (Only one person stopped to help me.) Other than the aforementioned gash and a sore ankle, I was fine, but the clerks in the store that was my destination reflected back to me in their faces the humiliation I felt.
(Hint: don’t enter a jewelry store looking like you have just been mugged.)
In the Bible, however, as in all three religions that consider its words sacred, falling on your face is an act of submission before God. It is a voluntary action meant to demonstrate humility and some measure of inferiority. It is no wonder that monarchs have adopted it (sometimes modified as a mere bow) as the preferred indicator of subservience from their subjects. In the Book of Esther, the wicked viceroy Haman served his own narcissism by demanding such a response from all in his presence. Mordecai’s refusal to fall on his face in humility became a fixation for Haman that led to him falling on his face in humiliation (Esther 7:6-8).
The difference between the two meanings is the arrogance or lack thereof by the person doing the falling. The person who is so self-involved and self-important that he or she seems to invite being toppled is likely to fall on his or her face. The person willing to humble himself or herself before God by falling on his or her face opens the possibility of being lifted up by grace and beneficence – and maybe even more. After all, in the verse I am discussing, Abram fell on his face and then God spoke to him.
I am not 100% proud of the fact that I enjoy some very arrogant and narcissistic people fall on their faces. Caught with their hand in the cookie jar or telling a whopper or making up supposed facts in evidence, I love to see them toppled. Whether they have been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn or a king, when they fall flat on their face, I have some satisfaction.
Whether my empathy kicks in or not has to do with the way they pick themselves up and dust themselves off. Sometimes humiliation begets humility. Other times, merely surviving the fall makes someone believe in immunity from meaningful consequences.
I try to think of both meanings of falling on my face on Yom Kippur when, deep in the day-long worship, the custom is to bow low to the ground. Not everyone does it (at least in the synagogues I have attended), and the responses of onlookers range from discomfort to amusement. But I am a different person, at least for a moment, when I stand up. I understand my vulnerability in a visceral way, and it gives meaning to the moment that verbal professions of humility cannot approach.
Sooner or later, or purpose or by accident, we all fall down. What we glean from it can determine the context of the words the next time we fall on our face.
The Genesis Project
And Sarai Abram's wife took Hagar the Egyptian, her handmaid, after Abram had dwelt ten years in the land of Canaan, and gave her to Abram her husband to be his wife. Genesis 16:3
In my role as the head of an interfaith organization, I see a lot of crazy. I mean that not in the clinical sense, of course, but in the what-planet-are-you-living-on sense. Maybe that’s not a wise thing for an interfaith activist to say, but I recently resolved to give up alternative facts. And cray is cray.
The single most ridiculous proposition I ever heard went virtually unnoticed because the man who made it has long since marginalized himself from the mainstream, but it doesn’t mean lots of people didn’t follow him on his journey. Pat Robertson is a television evangelist and media mogul who holds forth on his own network all year long. And more than once, including in recent memory, he insisted that the foundation of the Constitution is the Bible, and if we continue to stray from its path, we are doomed.
Here’s a direct quotation: “This country was raised as honoring the Bible, how far have we come now where we have allowed a few atheists to destroy the very foundations of our culture and we’re in danger of losing all of our freedom because our freedom rests, ladies and gentlemen, rests on the word of God.”
I know that I am supposed to have respect for people who believe differently than I do, but I am willing to make the distinction between deeply held religious convictions that chart a path of meaning through a world of uncertainty (on the one hand) and stuff that is just plain false. The former is how I get from one end of the day to the other. The latter is denial of fact, and believing it in the name of religious conviction is a disservice to both God and truth.
Perhaps someone with a better opinion of Rev. Robertson's belief system will rise to his defense, but I am having none of it. The Constitution is not based on the Bible. That is simply factually incorrect. I can sum up the essential message of Bible in two sentences, one for the Tanakh (the "Old Testament") and one for the New Testament. The first: These words of God shall you obey. The second: Jesus is your Lord and Savior. Both sets of books have many, many more important messages, but at least in the beliefs of their most devoted adherents, you can't skip those two messages.
The Constitution of the United States mentions neither God nor Jesus (which, I recognize, is a redundancy for some). It does mention religion once in the body of the original document. It prohibits any religious test for hold office. A self-proclaimed Evangelical Christian like Pat Robertson may seek the highest office in the land. And did. So may a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Zoroastrian and "a few atheists." None of them needs to know a thing about the Bible.
However, for believers of Rev. Robertson's ilk, there is a further problem. The Bible, being the word of God and the absolute truth, is inerrant, meaning there is nothing false in it, and may not be modified because it is, after all, the Word of God. The stories are true, the laws are sacred, the rules unbreakable.
(Yes, you can be forgiven if you disappoint God...but you can't change wrong into right if the Bible tells you so.)
Yet, the Constitution was presented to the fledgling nation complete with ten immediate amendments (including one that protects freedom of conscience and disallows the government from favoring any religion). And in the intervening history of our country we have seen fit to modify it another seventeen times, including once (#18) that was reversed (#21) when it didn't work out so well.
I am no stranger to lengths that believers will go to maintain the wholeness and integrity of the Bible. I believe every word, every verse, every section contains essential truth. I also believe that while the Bible is always true, it is not always accurate.
Which brings us to the verse at hand. I count at least three violations of American law in this short description or, if you are Pat Robertson, three mandates of the Bible that are violated by American law. Hagar is a slave. Sarai gives her as a sex surrogate to Abram. Abram, still married to Sarai, takes Hagar to be his wife.
The problem with being an advocate of a Biblical foundation to the Constitution is that you have to find some way to 'splain yourself out of the contradictions – like slavery, polygamy and involuntary surrogacy – that challenge the scripture and the compact both.
I am certain Rev. Robertson and others will find a way to justify the stuff that is just plain false. But that is crazy – not in the clinical sense, but in the what-planet-are-you-living-on sense. And cray is cray.
The Genesis:3 Project
And Abram said, “You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house will be my heir.” Genesis 15:3
It is sort of an irony that Abram is agitated that a stranger brought into his household will inherit his estate. The story of his biological parentage is yet to unfold (and when it does, he becomes the progenitor of many nations). But long after he has been called to his eternal reward, he becomes the adopted father to more people than anyone else, each of whom immediately becomes his heir.
It is an overstatement to insist that adoptive parents are the happiest ones I know, but I have met remarkably few of them who have expressed regret at the make-up of their families. Even my acquaintances whose chosen children have followed unexpected and challenging paths consider the opportunity to love and to be loved unmitigated by those challenges.
I am certainly no expert on adoption and its aftermath. But I am a pretty good listener. A friend who was raised in a loving family that she adored married early and had a baby immediately because, as she told me, she only felt grounded in the world when she held someone of her own. Other friends whose children were born in places they would otherwise never have visited have described their conscientious attempts to give them an appreciation of the culture they would have absorbed in their native-born circumstances. But mostly, what I hear from adoptive parents is not so different than what I hear from biological parents raising their kids.
The bonds of belonging to each other are forged as strongly and willingly as they are between birth mother and newborn-babe.
I don’t consider George Washington to be my father the way we Jews consider Abr(ah)am to be the father of every convert who willingly chooses to enter the covenant. But my family is no less adopted into America than those who have become heirs of the founder of the Jewish people.
In fact, like Abram and Sarai and everyone forward, all of America is adopted into an idea greater than themselves. And like Abram and Sarai, all of America sits on land that was home to someone else before our arrival. What is important is that the bonds of belonging to each other are forged strongly and willingly. I am every bit a child of the United States, even if my grandfather was a little Yiddish-speaking European when his parents escorted him down the gangplank. Accents and old-world cooking notwithstanding, all four of my grandparents managed embrace and be embraced by this country.
So how am I to understand Abram’s concern that his household servant who was like a son to him might wind up as master of the house? How am I to understand the requirement of the Constitution that has prevented both Superman and Arnold Schwarzenegger from being considered candidates for President because they were not natural-born citizens?
I suspect, early on, the need my friend expressed to hold someone of her own was powerful. There is certainly something mystical about sharing DNA, especially when it is imagined without having been experienced.
But as Abram in his time and beyond, and America, lamp lifted beside the golden door, discovered, the gifts of new arrivals enrich the family and provide affirmation that the worth of our endeavors – the estate and legacy bequeathed to the heirs – is more than just as a private gift to a favorite child. Instead, it sustains all comers and is, in return, sustained and enlarged by them.
The bigoted nonsense that is being used to justify nativism in the United States is appealing only to the insecure. As much as adoptees or, as we call them, immigrants, rush to our country to share in and contribute to its blessings, adopters or, as we call them, patriotic Americans welcome them with open arms. Do they bring challenges? Some do. Do they bring bounty? Some do. They are attracted by the strength of our society to embrace and absorb their gifts and love.
And they become the parents and grandparents to thoroughly American children like me who bear no resemblance to George Washington any more than the Irish, Swedish, Argentine or Japanese Jews by choice are physically recognizable as children of Father Abram. They shower the generations with human rights and civil rights and civic opportunities rare and undependable in most of the world.
That’s our legacy – breathing free.