By Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
One of the possible ways of reading the difficult verses at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion is that Abraham interrupted his spiritual experience of God to see to the needs of three unfamiliar wayfarers.
According to the Midrash in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud, God had appeared to him in a mystical vision in response to his performance of circumcision at the ripe old age of 100. Abraham, of course, was deeply appreciative of his unique relationship with God and of this beautiful divine gesture, but his priorities were with the tired and hungry men who now approached his tent.
To God, he said, “Please my Lord, do not pass away from your servant” (Genesis 18:3). In other words, “Wait here and I will soon be back.” Then he hastened to greet the strangers and to prepare for them a fitting meal, a project in which he also involved his wife and his son Ishmael.
The values expressed here by our rabbis and by the text of the Torah itself are nothing short of astounding. When confronted with an immediate choice between heaven and earth, attention should be paid to doing good here on earth. Heaven, apparently, can wait.
The same values are on display in the next scene of our Torah portion, when Abraham responds to the divine challenge and requests of God not to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He argues with God, and consciously risks his relationship with God, for the good of his fellow man.
Religion, at least as defined by Christianity, is about salvation of the soul. It is about the spiritual and about God, about leaving this vale of tears and ascending to a realm beyond which is wholly other. Now, Judaism is certainly about God, but we have few pretensions about leaving this world behind in favor of the world of the spirit. Our focus is on the physical here and now.
Judaism maintains that God has reached out to man not to facilitate the salvation of our souls and not merely to allow us to connect to Him, but rather to teach us how to live good lives upon earth.
Jews don’t talk a lot about God. Sometimes we come down hard upon ourselves for that. There are those who would see it as a failing of modern Judaism. But the truth is that this is at the very core of who we are. The Talmud almost never talks about God. Rather, it hones in on defining the this-worldly obligations that are incumbent upon us.
True, the Torah commands us to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, but the way we translate that into reality is through love of God’s Torah, love of his instruction for life. As the psalmist sings: “How I love your Torah; it is my delight all day long.”
The takeaway for us is clear: Don’t search in Judaism for what a Christian would search for in Christianity. Don’t come to synagogue just looking for God. The quest is not for spirituality on its own terms, but for God’s roadmap for a good life. Connect to Judaism to learn Torah, to tap into the divine human insight and legislation for righteousness and tikkun olam, for being a blessing to all the families of the earth.
In this way, we bring heaven down to earth.
Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger is executive director and community rabbinic scholar at the Jewish Studies Initiative of North Texas.