The Whole World for You
The Greatest Gift You Can Give a Human Being
This week’s XL is dedicated to those trapped in the devastating building collapse in Surfside yesterday morning, and of course, their families. Our hearts have been aching all day in pain and waiting to hear good news. We should hear good news soon.
We’ve been discussing the social backdrop of Abraham and Sarah’s generation in order to appreciate the depth of the Abrahamic revolution.
Normally, we think of Abraham and Sarah as fighting for monotheism — which of course they did. But their revolution was not only about the unity of God. It was simultaneously about the holy uniqueness of every human being.
To fully appreciate what this must have felt like we’d have to be invited to their tent for lunch. The Torah gives us a window into just this.
On a shmoiling hot day in which most of us would think Abraham and Sarah had every right to lay low, take it easy, and close up shop for guests, Abraham, physically ill from surgery, and not young (he was 100), famously sat by the opening of his tent to see if he spotted any traveler to invite over for a meal. He spotted three people, who as far as he could tell were ordinary, pagan merchants passing through the Negev desert. He ran after them to plead with them to take a load off and accept a little something to drink. They insisted that they were fine. He insisted more convincingly and they followed him, taking a seat in the cool shade he offered them.
Abraham tells them that since they’re already doing him the favor of accepting his hospitality, if they can indulge him, he’ll bake them some fresh pita so they don’t leave hungry. Abraham literally runs once again, and asks Sarah to bake bread using the finest flour they had in the pantry, and while she was busy doing that, he’d go take care of the main course: beef — which of course his guests didn’t ask for nor would they have any reason to expect from a perfect stranger in Middle Of Nowhere, Canaan.
Here’s the kicker. Rav the leading sage in 3rd century Iran understood the text of the Torah to indicate that Abraham made a point of serving his guests meat from three separate cows. Seeing that this was well over three millennia before refrigeration, this doesn’t seem like the most prudent culinary decision.
To make matters more puzzling, Rav’s son-in-law, Rav Hanan bar Rava added that Abraham actually decided to serve tongue to his three guests. (Vegetarians forgive us.) Each one received a separate tongue, drizzled with a mustard dressing, on what we have to assume was a beautifully garnished plate.
To this most bizarre rabbinic tradition regarding the details of the menu on that fateful day, we reserve the right to ask “what!?” and “why would he do that?!”
Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel (my rabbi’s rabbi’s rabbi’s rabbi) was known as “the Alter of Slobodka” and posthumously renowned as the teacher and mentor of no less than ten of the most important founders of major yeshivas around the world in the 20th century. The Alter’s whole educational vision could be summed up by Abraham’s spiritually gourmet plating at that meal for those three people he’d never met before.
The Alter explains1 that when you do an act of kindness for another person, there is the physical gift you are giving them (e.g. the actual food), but there is also the spiritual experience that the recipient gets from the way you gave the gift — the thought you put into it — the fact that you are giving this to them in the first place. Abraham was intent on trying to crack the code of kindness. How might we give people gifts in a way that it would open the floodgates of appreciation to the One Who gave us and gives us the gift of Life Itself?
Abraham reasoned that God created Adam alone to implant deep in his psyche that it was worth creating the entire cosmos just for him. He was meant to pass on this perception to his wife and to his kids. Apparently, the message got watered down quite quickly. Abraham sought to bring it back. He served his guests one tongue each specifically because he knew that they would do the math and realize that he deemed it worthy to invest a whole cow for each of them. He’d have to figure out what to do with the remaining beef, but like the old Mastercard commercials, the realizations his guests would have would be priceless.
The greatest gift one can give another person is in the feeling that in that moment, nothing else exists but them. There is no place that you’d rather be. They are significant. And end unto themselves and not a means to anything else.
If done right, this gift can awaken this knowledge buried in our subconscious, under messages to the contrary, that each of us is worthy to have been uniquely created by the Creator of the Universe.
Ohr HaTzafun I, “Between a Person and the Omnipresent & Between a Person and His Friend.”