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Rabbi Howard Cooper

Shabbat Va-yeira

You can listen to Rabbi Howard's sermon or read it below:


In my early years in the rabbinate - and I am talking about 40, 45, years ago,  because I started in this business ridiculously young - when I listened to other rabbis’ sermons I was aware that they hardly ever talked about what I thought was the most important theme/idea  in Judaism and Jewish life - they rarely mentioned God. I thought this was peculiar, I suppose, because in those days  Iwas very preoccupied with - let’s call it the ‘God question’ - and I supposed I must have felt - in my own naïve and narcissistic way - that everyone should be interested in what I was interested in. But they didn’t seem to be. Rabbi Lionel Blue was a rare exception to this - but he wasn’t a congregational rabbi. 

Anyway, I can see now, looking back on all this, that because of what I felt was this silence surrounding the G word , I made it my mission, so to speak, to talk as often as I could in sermons about God: to bring God under the spotlight, as it were, and try and illuminate all the issues and dynamics and problems and uncertainties surrounding this central character of our religious drama - although a phrase like ‘character…in our drama’ was not how I would have spoken about it in those days, in the first half of my rabbinic life. But the search for God, the experience of God, the centrality of God in Jewish religious life, the role of God and divinity in human life, how we might find God in everyday life, also the so-called ‘silence of God’ during the Shoah - all these themes were what I wanted to speak about and often did speak about. As if I thought I was some sort of expert on the topic. 

But over the years something changed, I changed I suppose - some people might call it maturing or growing up, though I’m not sure that’s quite the right language to capture what happened. But  gradually, over the decades, I became aware that I was talking about God less and less, and often in sermons not at all, certainly it wasn’t the focus of a sermon, as it had been in the past. If I was feeling particularly playful - or maybe it was just pious, or pseudo-pious, I don’t know - I might slip in a reference to God, almost as an aside to the themes I was exploring, a bracket as it were, but definitely not the main topic. 

So what happened? Why did God disappear, or fade from view, from Rabbi Cooper’s sermons over the years? Now I could turn this sermon right now into a sermon about why I no longer give sermons about God, at least not directly, and there are reasons of various kinds, and you might be passingly interested in what I’d say, but it would feel to me insufferably self-indulgent - no doubt fascinating, but still self-indulgent and solipsistic. What I’d prefer to do is talk a little bit now about today’s Torah portion, or al least the first couple of verses of it, and along the way see if we can glimpse in it something that can throw light on my reticence these days to talk about God directly, face-on, as I used to. 

Our sedrah began with chapter 18 of Genesis. Va-yay’ra elav Adonai - “the Eternal One appeared to him…”, as Abraham sat at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day… (Genesis18:1). 

And it continues Va-yisar aynav va-yar - “and he lifted up his eyes and he saw…”. The text is subtle here, it separates off the verb ‘to see’ from what he sees. This suggests it isn’t just ordinary seeing, it’s more like ‘insight’ than ‘sight’. (The Hebrew doesn’t distinguish between these two). 

The next word is ve-hinei, “and behold” - the word always acts like a  jump cut in a film, as the narrator ‘cuts’ to the subjective view of the character. So now the storyteller lets us find out what Abraham sees: shlosha anashim nitzavim alav, “three people are standing waiting above him” - he’s sitting, they are rearing up above him. (The word used for ‘standing’ n’z’v means ‘standing waiting for something’, a different word from the everyday Hebrew word for the physical act of standing a’m’d). 

This is great storytelling: graphic, very precise, you can picture it in your mind’s eye, each word crafted to add a detail to the picture, so that you can see it (it’slike the specificity of individual words in a poem, or a Rembrandt painting where each brushstroke counts). 

And what does Abraham do? The next word begins the second half of the sentence - but it’s not an action word, it’s a reflection word, the action is inwards: va-yar - again! - the word is repeated, it comes in each half of the sentence and Abraham has another moment of insight, where what he sees with his eyes joins up with what he’s seeing within himself, what he’s intuiting is happening. Va-yar va-yaratz  “And he saw; and he ran out of his tent to greet them…”, and he bows low before them. Honour, respect, reverence, humility. 

We are used to reading this ‘bowing down’ gesture in relation to Biblical characters, it comes dozens and dozens of times, it’s so familiar we stop even thinking about it. But it may be worth noting that this is the first time it is usedin Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. In this scene, at this moment, this act of bowing down opens up a new way of people relating to each other. It’s an archetypal moment: respect, reverence in the face of the other, humility, making oneself smaller, giving space to the other. Abraham as an exemplar of a particular mode of being with the Other, of the ethics of interpersonal behaviour, the dynamics of I and Thou (to use Martin Buber’s language). Each Thou a glimpse of the Eternal Thou. This is his first impulse: he runs and prostrates himself. 

This leads into the actions for which this scene is perhaps better know - and what’s talked about by the rabbinic commentators - his hospitality: water, food, shelter, provision. But what I’m wanting to focus on here is how the outer hospitality - the material hospitality and generosity - is preceded by another kind of hospitality, if we want to call it that, the hospitality to the lived experience of being in the presence of other human beings, souls like oneself, the hospitality of making space for a shared humanity with the other, with the stranger, the traveller, the ones who arrive from elsewhere, those who arrive out of nowhere - which is always somewhere. 

Isn’t this a key aspect of the insight Abraham has? That these strangers are fellow travellers on the road through life, fellow human beings dependent on what provisions they receive on the journey - (we can also call it Kafka’s insight) - an insight into the way we all depend on each other to get through life, to get through the day? 

But Abraham’s moment of insight is, remember, repeated: there are two moments of insight, two levels of revelation that follow on the heels of each other, as thoughts do - Va-yar…Va-yar - because Abraham also has a moment of insight not just into our shared humanity with the other, with the stranger, but even more profoundly, insight into this being one way that God is present in the world. It’s not just an awareness that, as we are accustomed to say in a rather abstract formulation, humanity is made “in the image of God/the divine”, b’zelem Elohim, as the beginning of Genesis puts it (1:27). But what Abraham realises in a more personal way - what the storytellers in their exquisite narration are signposting - is that in the encounter with another human being, God , Adonai, is present. 

That’s how the narrative unfolds - Adonai appears to Abraham, verse 1. That’sthe storyteller’s omniscient ‘objective’ perspective, as it were. The narrator is telling us what is going on, what we are going to see illustrated, illuminated. Va-yay’ra elav Adonai - “the Eternal One appeared to him”.  But what does Abraham actually see? What he sees are three people, people like him, three strangers. That’s his subjective experience - people awaiting a response. And the text dramatizes how what he sees with his eyes is linked to what he sees with his mind’s eye; and what he realises, what his insight is - and it is a theological insight and a spiritual insight - is that the divine appears in the everyday, the divine appears when you open your eyes to see what is in front of you, the divine is present in our interaction with others.  And that this experience is - for want of a better word - God. Or rather, this is also God. 

We are not talking about a transcendent God here, something over and above us, beyond us, we are not talking about a creator God, separate from our lives, but an aspect of God here and now, present, waiting for us to see and to respond. Seeing with the eyes in this story isn’t enough, it is reflecting on what he seesand responding to what he sees, that makes Abraham into the exemplar, the model for Jewish lives, Avraham Avinu, the founding father of a new way of seeing, a new way of thinking about God. 

If you look through all these chapters in which Abraham appears, he doesn’tseem to speak much about God - he doesn’t give sermons about God to his family, or to those the Torah describes him encountering. He mentions God to Isaac at the Akedah, but that’s just about it. But in our text today he introduces a way of thinking about God - or rather the storytellers use him to dramatize a way of thinking about God - that is ‘horizontal’ as it were, not ‘vertical’. (I’mborrowed Rabbi Arthur Green’s language here). It is a way of thinking about God as what is enacted on this level, on the human level; which is why - one of the reasons why - I stopped talking overtly about God and started talking more about compassion and justice, and generosity, and kindness, about human qualities and capacities, through which the divine enters into the world. God is revealed through us, through us inhabiting these so called ‘divine’ qualities and enacting divinity in our everyday lives. Horizontal Judaism is a Jewish way of being and thinking in which God is present in and through the human, rather than God split off from humanity.  

Who knows, maybe in these latter years of my rabbinic life I might return to my roots. There’s still a lot to say, to puzzle over, to explore and wrestle with, about Ha Kadosh Baruch Hu, the Holy One of Israel, Ribbono shel Ha-Olam, the ‘Master’ of the Universe, Avinu Malkenu, ‘Our Father, Our Sovereign’, there’s quite a bit of life in the old dog yet - and I’m not just talking about me.

Sat, 21 May 2022 20 Iyar 5782