Lech Lecha: The Open Tent

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, all the wealth they had amassed, and the souls they had made in Charan, and they set out for the land of Canaan…(Bereishit 12:5)

Their tent is open to all four winds,
no judgment dims the welcome of their smiles:
he with thoughtful air and kindly face
she with busy hands and knowing eyes
stepping forward to embrace the passers-by.

Food is lovingly prepared,
guests are nourished and replete:
the conversation turns to God.
Animated arguments resound,
yet all are gathered in,
finding shelter beneath the Shechina’s wings.


In a commentary on next week’s Parasha, Vayera, http://ziegler.aju.edu/Default.aspx?id=5317 Rabbi Aryeh Cohen ponders the secret of the righteousness that God Himself attributes to Abraham, “For I have embraced him [Abraham] so that he will charge his sons and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord to do righteousness and justice, that the Lord may bring upon Abraham all that He spoke concerning him.”
Rabbi Cohen suggests that the key to Abraham and Sarah’s righteousness is evidenced in the beginning of Parashat Vayera, when the three angels appear and Abraham (who was recuperating from his circumcision) runs towards them and entreats them to come in and rest, bathe their feet and eat and drink in the shade. He then hurries to Sarah and enlists her help in preparing the food for the guests (Bereishit 18: 1-8).
Rabbi Cohen notes that Abraham, who had been talking to God, looks up and notices three people coming. He says,
“He [Abraham] did not know them, nor did he know that they were angels on a Divine mission. However, as was his wont, he approached them from a stance of subservience. We would not expect Abraham to challenge the strangers in the manner of Western rangers guarding their lands, but we might expect him to inquire after them. “Who are you?” “What do you want?” (The angel thus inquired of Hagar in last week’s portion [Lech Lecha].) However, Abraham does not do this at all. He runs to greet them and bows low to them as if they were angels or God. He speaks to them as if they are Divine. Abraham’s behavior makes the strong statement that strangers have a claim on us. It is not ours to question them, but to respond to their need, their vulnerabilities.”
He continues, “Abraham sees wanderers and from the vantage point of his tent he recognizes that they are in need of food and water and so his first action is to respond to their need. He places himself at their service. Abraham then recruits Sarah to his response team (by this time, God is forgotten in a corner somewhere). Sarah…immediately and unquestioningly joins in creating a humane response to the travelers. Sarah prepares the bread as Abraham prepares the meat.”
Rabbi Cohen concludes that “engagement with another person has to start as a response to their needs. “My lord/my Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go on past your servant.” Abraham recognized that every other person is just like God in that they are beyond our complete grasp and that therefore the only moral action we do is to respond to their need.”

In the book, Torah of the Mothers: Contemporary Jewish Women Read Classical Jewish Texts edited by Ora Wiskind Elper and Susan Handelman, Tamara Goshen-Gottstein contributes a chapter entitled The Souls That They Made: Physical Infertility and Spiritual Fecundity. She addresses the different models of infertility among the Matriarchs. She says, “Entering the tent of Sarah, we meet a completely different paradigm of infertility. Abraham and Sarah are a couple, in deep spiritual partnership, bringing masses of people to the knowledge and praise of their Creator and sustainer…” Goshen-Gottstein notes that when we first meet Sarah, the Torah says, “Sarai is barren, she has no child (Bereishit 11:30). She observes that since no word in the Torah is superfluous, saying that she is barren and also that she has no child, elicits a range of interpretations. However, she continues that the next mention of Sarah is when she and Abraham embark on their journey of faith to the place that God will show him. The Torah tells us that as they set out, “Abram took his wife …and the souls they had made in Charan, and they set out for the land of Canaan…(Bereishit 12:5). So Goshen-Gottstein asks, “If they were infertile, then who were these souls?” She cites the Midrash in Bereishit Rabbah 39:14 in which Rabbi Elazar says in the name of R’ Jose ben Zimra that if all the nations assembled to create one insect, they could not endow it with life, yet here the phrase is “and the souls that they made”! This, he says, refers to the proselytes [whom they had made]. He comments that then it should say, “that they converted,” not “that they made” and this teaches that he who brings someone close to God, it is as though he created him. The question then arises why the text says, “that they made” as opposed to ” that he [Abraham] made” and Rabbi Hunia deduces that Abraham converted the men and Sarah the women.
The Talmud (Sotah 10b) describes Abraham bringing people closer to God by offering them hospitality. In Bereishit 21:33 we read, “Abraham planted a tamarisk at Beersheba”. The word for tamarisk is “eshel” which has been described as an acronym for achila-shetiyah-linah meaning eating-drinking-lodging – in short, hospitality. When the guests wanted to thank Abraham for the food and drink, he told them that these had come from God, and it was to Him they should offer their blessings.
As of Sarah, Goshen-Gottstein notes that although she had not given birth, the Midrash portrays her as an “immensely generative woman”. She says, “Their open tent, receiving, teaching, nourishing guests does not seem to give her much time to experience the distress of her barrenness.” She notes that it is Abraham who is troubled, despite God’s promises to grant him descendants. So Sarah matter-of-factly offers her concubine to Abraham in order to be “built up through her [Hagar]”.
Goshen- Gottstein looks at the concept of the “open tent” in two spheres. She says, “I am compelled to focus on the open tent because of real needs that beg to be met. As family structures weaken, many children are in need. There is a haunting chasm. On one side is a growing number of children in distress: children neglected through poverty, orphaned by war and AIDS, abandoned because of handicaps, or simply unwanted – urgently needing love and care. On the other side of this chasm are a multitude of infertile couples and singles desperate to have children. Why is this chasm so vast and deep? How much is ordained by God and how much is due to our desperate fixation on biological progeny? Would the chasm be bridged by profound shifts in our attitude?” She talks also about “spiritual parenting” in which young people might be nurtured in certain aspects of their lives by others than their birth parents. She describes how she herself both benefited from this herself as a teenager, and later bestowed it on another young woman.
And then Goshen-Gottstein addresses another aspect. She cites Rabbi Moses Cordovero*, the great Kabbalist in his work Tomer Devorah – The Palm Tree of Deborah, in which he describes the spiritual work in the world in which humankind should be engaged. He says that “Just as God provides [for all] from the horned buffalo to the lice eggs, despising no creature…man too should be good to all creatures, despising none. Even the smallest of small creatures should be very important in his eyes and he should be concerned about it. He should be good to all who need his goodness.” Goshen-Gottstein suggests “To most of us, this is a tall order: to live our lives open and aware, caring for all in need who cross our path, creature or human, allowing no judgment to limit our flow of support.” But, she continues, ” Although most of us are unable to open all four sides of our tent, many of us could open one flap.”

*Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522–1570), was a central figure in the historical development of Kabbalah, leader of a mystical school in 16th-century Safed, Israel. He is known by the acronym the RaMaK.
His birthplace is unknown, but the name Cordovero indicates that his family originated in Córdoba, Spain and perhaps fled from there during the expulsion of 1492 during the Spanish Inquisition. His Hebrew signature, however, [Cordoeiro] strongly suggests a long-lasting residence in Portugal.
The RaMaK was either born in, or moved to Safed, the city that was soon to become famed as a center of Kabbalah and mystical creativity. Albeit not involved in mystical studies until his twentieth year, RaMaK soon after gained a reputation of an extraordinary genius and a prolific writer. Besides his knowledge in Kabbalah, he was a Talmudic scholar and a man of commanding mastery in Jewish philosophical thought who was respected in these fields.
According to his own testimony in the introduction to “Pardes Rimonim“, in 1542, at the age of twenty, RaMaK heard a “Heavenly voice” urging him to study Kabbalah with his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, composer of the mystical song Lecha Dodi. He was thus initiated into the mysteries of the Zohar. The young RaMaK not only mastered the text, but decided to organize the Kabbalistic themes leading to his day and present them in an organized fashion. This led to the composition of his first book, Pardes Rimonim (“Orchard of Pomegranates”), which was completed in 1548 and secured his reputation as a brilliant Kabbalist and a lucid thinker. The Pardes, as it is known, was a systemization of all Kabbalistic thought up to that time and featured the author’s attempt at a reconciliation of various early schools with the conceptual teachings of the Zohar in order to demonstrate an essential unity and self-consistent philosophical basis of Kabbalah.
His second work – a magnum opus titled Ohr Yakar (“Precious Light”) – was a 16 volume commentary on the Zoharic literature in its entirety and a work to which RaMaK had devoted most of his life (the modern publication of this momumental work started during the mid 1960s and reached partial fruition in 2004 in Jerusalem, though the 23-volume set left out about two-thirds of the Tikkunei Zohar; additional volumes are still being published).
Some other books for which the RaMaK is known include Tomer Devorah in which he utilizes the Kabbalistic concepts of the Sephirot (“Divine attributes”) to illuminate a system of morals and ethics and Sefer Gerushin, a short and intimate composition which features the highly devotional slant of RaMaK, as well as his asceticism and religious piety. Certain parts of his works are still in form of manuscripts, whereas his existing writings suggest many other compositions which he either intended to write or had actually written – but were lost.
Around 1550, the RaMaK founded a Kabbalah academy in Safed, Israel, which he led for twenty or so years, until his death. He was survived by a wife whose name remains unknown (it is known that she was Solomon Alkabetz’ sister) and by a son named Gedaliah (1562–1625). Gedaliah was the impetus behind the publication of some of his father’s books in Venice, Italy circa 1584-7. Gedaliah was buried in Jerusalem, where he had spent most of his adult life after returning from Venice.

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