Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Parshat Chayei Sarah
November 13, 2020
Congregation B’nai Israel
Pirkei Avot 1:5
What do we do with texts that challenge us or our modern expectations? Do we write them off entirely? Do we ignore them? Do we create apologetics arguing they mean something totally different?
In looking at various commentaries, I found apologetics. In order to understand this Mishnah, we need to figure out who said what and what they actually said! Yose ben Yochanan says one long, strange sentence. It is a sentence about the importance of hospitality. This seems especially relevant since we read about hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests last week with Avraham and this week with Avraham’s servant. In the earlier case Avraham invited the three guests and began preparing the meal. He asked Sarah to take care of things immediately and then he went to do his part. He did not oversee her or micromanage her. He sought to let her focus on her part and he focused on his. Some traditional commentaries focus on this aspect, saying a woman’s domain is the home and a man should not have too many opinions there. (I am not sure how Rebecca would appreciate that!) As such, the command is to welcome the stranger without delay, rather than a focus on the conversation itself.
It is the next layer where things get dicey. There the sages try to take a lesson about hospitality and turn it into a conversation about relationships. They fear immodesty or illicit sex. How does this apply to us in the 21st century, where unlike “When Harry Met Sally”, many of us do believe it is possible to have opposite-sex friendships without tension or “inappropriate” relationships?
This could be a dissertation, but I’ll keep it short. Context matters. The women of Mishnaic times, with the exception of the named women in the Talmud, were not generally educated. From the early rabbinic perspective, these elites only wanted to speak to those on “their” level. They would consult with women when their experience was relevant, but otherwise were less interested in them. Greco-Roman society of the time was even more patriarchal. This was a “progressive” view at the time!
The talmud in Sanhedrin 71a speaks about the rebellious son:
בן סורר ומורה לא היה ולא עתיד להיות ולמה נכתב דרוש וקבל שכר
There has never been a stubborn and rebellious son and there will never beone in the future, as it is impossible to fulfill all the requirements that must be met in order to apply this halakha. And why, then, was the passage relating to a stubborn and rebellious son written in the Torah? So that you may expound upon new understandings of the Torah and receive reward for your learning, this being an aspect of the Torah that has only theoretical value. (Text from www.sefaria.org Steinsaltz Koren translation)
What can we learn from this today? We must prioritize our learning. We must know about our heritage. We must also focus on hospitality. We cannot let our study distract us from the world around us--nor can we allow the world around us to keep us from Torah. BOTH are vital. Come and learn! Shabbat Shalom.