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Who is "Truly" Religious? #698

10/22/2021 05:38:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Parashah Vayera
Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need.” (Isaiah 58:7)

Who is "Truly" Religious?

“Rabbi, I need to tell you, I’m really not that religious.”

This is a declaration I hear regularly when I am introduced to someone.

Many find it important to affirm that while they are Jewish in their hearts, the idea of attending synagogue and reciting words from a book of fixed prayers, does not always speak to them.

Results of a recent Pew Research Center study were not surprising as they concluded that while younger generations continue to maintain a strong connection to Israel and to their Jewish identity, their formal affiliation with organized religion and with synagogues continues to decline.

And this trend is not limited to Judaism. It exists within Christianity, Islam and many other organized religions. Many declare themselves to be "spiritual, not religious."

This begs the question: “What does it truly mean to be religious?”

Does it mean defining ourselves by how often we sit in a pew, or rather, more significantly, by how kind we are to those around us?

We have all observed many who do not attend services frequently, but who — each day — help bring God’s light into the world through care and compassion.

This begs another question, “What does God want of us religiously?”

Through this week’s Torah portion, Vayera — “and God appeared to Abraham,” we receive a possible answer.

Let’s set the scene: At the close of last week’s Torah portion, Abraham, his son Ishmael and those within Abraham’s intimate male circle are circumcised.

As this week’s parashah opens, we are told that God appears to Abraham, as he reclines under some trees near Hebron.

Our Sages posit that this was more than a random visit. They imagine that God was paying Abraham a bikkur cholim call. In other words, God was there to comfort Abraham during his recovery.

But then something amazing occurs to interrupt the visit. Abraham looks up and notices three men. They are, as we will learn, angels coming to foretell the upcoming birth of Isaac.

The message is miraculous in that Sarah is 90 years old, and Abraham is almost 100.

Abraham is now faced with a choice. Does he remain with God, or does he attend to his three visitors?

I don’t know about you, but if God appeared to me in person, I would be inclined to ask many questions. Among them: “Who created you, God? What came before the big bang? Are we alone in the universe? Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

I’m sure Abraham had many questions. But what did he do? He rose from his place of rest, ran to greet the strangers — and literally left God standing there.

At the expense of spending personal time with God, Abraham and Sarah arrange for a sumptuous meal of veal, cakes and curds, modeling one of Judaism’s core values — hospitality.

I believe this sends a message repeated numerous times in the Torah. We are told that God doesn’t need praises, the sweet smell of incense or fixed prayers. Those, perhaps, are for us.

What God prefers is a better world. Judaism teaches that one of the most important earthly tasks which we are assigned, as articulated in the Alenu prayer, is “Tikun Olam” — to help repair this damaged, flawed world.

It means that what God really wants is for us to treat each other with dignity and respect.

Each of us is a desert wanderer. Sometimes we feel alone; sometimes we feel lost in the wilderness.

But then, this week, the story of Abraham and Sarah comes along and reminds us that as much as each of us has queries of a divine nature, the most important questions we can pose to another human being are immediate: “Are you hungry?” “Are you alone?” “How can I walk with you?”  

On Yom Kippur, in the middle of services, while we are engulfed in considering our past year’s behavior and pondering the meaning of our lives, we pause to read a section from the Book of Isaiah that reminds us that our prayers and fasting mean nothing unless we “Share your food with everyone who is hungry; share your home with the poor and homeless. Give clothes to those in need.” (Isaiah 58:7)

The Torah also reminds us that God does not just desire rituals and prayers from pews. As the prophet Hosea states: For God desires mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. (Hosea 6:6)

This week’s Torah portion inspires us to consider that while rituals and communal prayer are important in defining who we are and the company that we keep, the true mark of an observant person is based on empathy and compassion.

We erect a chupah at Jewish weddings to remind ourselves that like Abraham and Sarah, each of us needs to keep our tent doors open.

When we recite the Yizkor memorial prayer, we recall those who once dwelled in our midst, and are drawn to them by the memories of their hugs, the time they spent with us, the smiles they directed toward us, the traditions and values they shared, and the acts of kindness they extended to others.

Indeed, can respect the spirit of creation best when we put God’s words into action.

This week, as we recall the acts of kindness and hospitality modeled by Abraham, Sarah and our own mothers, fathers and grandparents, we can learn so much about what it truly means to be religious.

Indeed, being religious is about living in the now through our deeds. It means healing this world through care, hospitality and compassion.

God — as the Torah inspires us this week to consider — can always wait.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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