Shabbat Shalom with a Heart-Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayeira
As we read through scripture, we always have to be aware that translations are tricky. I have written at length about the need to remember that Hebrew is not an exact language. Without vowels and sentence structure, we can read the text in multiple ways. When we read the English, the translator chose the “only possible reading” for us. Most of the time, the value of this reality is that it keeps the text from being stagnant; it holds lots of possible readings and meanings. There are occasions, however, that we do not know how to translate words. We can translate most through context and word relationships the Hebrew has to other ancient languages. In the first Genesis Creation story, when we get to day five, God “creates” “T’ninim.” We have no idea what the word means. If one looks at English translations, one would find “dinosaurs,” “Leviathan,” “crocodiles,” “sea monsters,” “whales,” and a host of other “creature type” attempts to translate the word. Some translators are honest and simply translate the word similarly to the way I did above.
We find another such word in this week’s Torah portion. After the destruction of Sodom and just before the “test” of which we read on Rosh Hashanah, Abraham and the Philistine King Abimelech make a pact between them. Abraham then seals the deal by planting an “Aeshel.” We, again, have no idea what it is. Translations give us “tamarisk,” “strip of land,” “special tree,” or simply the translation of the Hebrew word. The Hebrew word consists of three letters: Aleph, Shin, and Lamed. As I was trying to figure out what this word meant, I read a commentary that had a little Rabbinic fun with it (of course this says a lot about what “fun” means in our context). He broke the word apart and posited that Abraham planted a place where one could eat (achilah beginning with aleph), drink (sh’tiyah beginning with the shin), and accompaniment (levayah beginning with the lamed). He planted a Hotel. The commentary focused on the last piece: accompaniment. The argument was that Abraham was such a devotee of peace and love that each morning, after he served his guests, he would accompany them part way on their journey. He wanted to ensure their safety, that they had food and drink, and were headed in the proper direction.
I could not look past the notion of “planted.” We build buildings. We build objects. We plant life. We plant with the expectation of growth. The city of Sodom was just destroyed. Abraham does not build shelter; he sits amongst the planted trees of nature and plants … whatever he plants. The idea that he planted a hotel that brought people together in meaningful relationships has to be juxtaposed to the buildings of Sodom and the callousness of Sodomites that were simply swept away. Where we feel rooted with each other, everything that follows flourishes. Think about it. Have you ever walked into a restaurant and felt alienated because the people there simply walked through the walls of the building? How about the times that a server takes an active interest in you/your party? Remember the show “CHEERS?” It was not just a bar, it was the “beit knesset (meeting house)” for people whose lives revolved around each other. This is what we mean when we talk about planting roots in a community. Life has meaning because of the people with whom we share our time. We do not, or should not, simply exist standing next to each other. Being rooted next to each other, we feed from the same natural resources. We cross pollinate, adding sustaining nutrition to each other’s spirit. If we poison someone’s well (figuratively or physically) we drink from those waters. If the atmosphere is untenable for some, it erodes the support for all of our roots.
We have an obligation to appreciate each other’s rootedness. We have an opportunity to share in each other’s blessings. We have only a limited span of years in which to fill our lives with meaning and value. It is time to plant our roots with each other, committing to caring for the spiritual, physical, and ecological environment that will concurrently sustain us all. Shabbat Shalom.