Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Vayeira Symphony

Remembering Nechama

Years ago (when life seemed to move slower) I spent five years in Israel. I was blessed to be in Nechama Leibowitz’s class during that time, and more than the scholarship what I hope I’ll never forget is Nechama's humanity. Nechama used anecdotes, one of which applies to Vayeira.

On a hot summer day two men wait an inordinate time wait at a bus stop. One turns to the next and says, “Sure is hot, isn't’t it?” If the second guy responds, “yes” then he hasn’t done right. The translation of the first man’s words is – let’s talk. To misunderstand that is a social crime. Her point was that when learning Torah we must recognize that direct translation betrays true meaning which hides in the subtext. The way she made the point was so human that the story became a thing itself.

I don't recall the context in which she told this next one, but I remember the story. Nechama was standing at an outside Chupa and next to her were two little girls. She overheard as one explained to the other what a wedding was all about: "Exactly nine months from tonight they will have a baby!" she explained, as if it was that simple.

Yaakov asked to be saved from being killed, also to be saved from killing. Nechama told of a student that visited her after his army service. He was different, she could tell. After a while he told her what changed. He'd killed a man and would never be the same. He was in a tank and an enemy tank approached. He thought, how can I kill? And then - if I don't kill, I'll be killed. All this, in a split second. And he killed a man.

Pursuant to this week's parsha I remember Nechama telling of a man who loved symphonies. She described a unique opportunity the man had to hear a live performance of a symphony orchestra in his apartment: The concert begins and the doorbell rings. Realizing it may be someone in need the man goes to the door, abandoning his beloved music. It's his neighbor. He wants to borrow a cup of sugar. The man happily fetches the sugar and wishes his acquaintance well. He sits back down with his symphony and the bell rings once more. His neighbor wants to know, if it's not too much trouble, if he could spare two eggs. No problem. He gets the eggs. He gives the guy the eggs. He sits back down and the needy fellow is at the door again. This keeps happening. With a smile, our hero provides the man with what he wants each time. He doesn't get to hear the symphony because he put helping another human being over his greatest personal pleasure of the symphony.

Nechama used this anecdote to explain the extraordinary greatness of Avraham. His symphony was G-d, and it was playing in his home. And he let go of his pleasure, G-d's visit, to take in hungry, tired travelers. The Medrash comments "Gadol Hachnasat Orchim MaiKabalat Penai HaShechina" - "Taking in guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence." I like the way Nechama said it with a story.

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