I Am A Rock by Paul Simon
A winter’s day in a deep and dark December
I am alone gazing from my window to the ground below
The earth’s beneath a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock. I am an island.
And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries
Paul Simon was one of the great pop culture poets of the last half-century, and this song could sadly become our anthem for the next half century. For all our technological advancements, the atomization of society could render us like a rock – alone and lonely. But the stories communicated in the Torah today may offer us a better suggestion for living lives that are worth living.
Our parsha opens with Abraham outside his home in Hebron, (prime real estate by the oaks) the place where years earlier he had built an altar to God. Now he had been settled there for years though he had previously lived a rather nomadic existence – this was home sweet home. In fact Abraham was there longer than most of us stay in our homes today, at least 13 years since he had returned from war and moved in next to his pal Mamre another desert chieftain. It was here at the sprite age of 86 that Abraham fathered a child named Ishmael, but unfortunately he was not the child that would inherit the land and blessings that God had promised Abraham for his descendants.
It was “in the heat of the day”, “siesta time” – the time you want to relax and don’t want to be bothered. It was very hot so Abraham took shelter in the shade of these enormous trees. Abraham is 99 years old and is recovering from a recent circumcision, and yet he runs to meet three strangers that he sees approaching his tent. Why did he run to meet the men? I would guess that Abraham intuits that he is in the presence of greatness, though he does not know who these strangers are. The appellation he uses, adonai (Lord) can be understood to be the equivalent of sir, and it is at the least a designation of respect. Abraham knew that to have your home graced by those who are honorable confers honor upon the home. But even more so Abraham apparently understood that the act of opening his home to all travelers in of itself was the act of an honorable and good man. But he is not alone in these acts of hospitality, for as he rushes about getting water for his guests to wash their dusty feet, and selecting a calf for their meal, Sarah kneads dough and bakes cakes for the three perfect strangers. Both Abraham and Sarah understood that opening their home meant opening their heart.
If they were alive today, I think both Abraham and Sarah might agree that our lifestyles, and our circumstances today threaten to turn us into Rocks and Islands. We are inured to depersonalization. We have replaced face to face group experience with social networks and tweets, from timeless phantoms on the screen. We rely upon computers for dating, and discreet professionals to manage our fears. We expect our schools not our families, to instill moral values and build character in our children, and often allow an electronic box to baby sit if not raise our children. Entertainment is individualized and isolated, and games of sport must be organized and orchestrated, and children’s play must be dated on a parent’s calendar.
It is understandable why we have a perceived need to bunkerize and balkanize ourselves. The bombardment of telemarketers and Junk mail, both online and old school, can make us feel as though anyone who makes human contact is trying to exploit us, and of course fear of terrorism in the long wake of 9/11 has only added to our concern with those we do not know. Those who are different are at best held in suspicion, at worse are to be feared.
So we have even institutionalized caring. We delegate feeding the hungry to soup kitchens, house the homeless in shelters that are essentially warehouses for the indigent, and even integrate newcomers into our neighborhoods with “welcome wagons”. But efficiency can never replace nurturing community. Our transience, fear, and business have stripped our lives of the essential sense of belonging and emotional sustenance that make us human.
Abraham and Sarah demonstrate the mitzvah that has become known in Judaism as Hakhnasat Orhim, which can be simply translated as hospitality. We can do more than just meet peoples basic physical requirements, we can make people feel at home in our home. Our homes can become small outposts of humanity in the vast wasteland of institutions, by inviting weary and desensitized people to join, to trust and to share of the blessings that God has provided us. So what do we do when the long winter ahead will no doubt keep even our closest friends out of our homes. Let’s remember our hearts are our homes. Let’s use the technology we have to better serve our relationships. Don’t tweet, retweet and posture on Facebook. Don’t use anonymity and insulation to weaponize your frustration and anxiety. Rather take the time to call, not text and reach out to those who are lonely, isolated and in need.
We have all experienced the blessing of spending time with those we have an affinity for, people of similar age or background, or education, or occupation, or interests, or even belief. But in our great appreciation for our present friendships there is also a subtle danger. Our infatuation can turn into insulation and even isolation. We should challenge ourselves to open our circles. Look at some of the interesting people who have drifted to the perimeters of our lives, and open your hearts to them. And remember the front door of your house is the Gateway to your soul, but our homes can now be extended through the miracle of technology. It is true that a rock feels no pain. Insulation and isolation can spare you the potential hurt of failed relations. But nothing ventured is nothing gained. So take a chance reaching out beyond the safe fortresses of old connections with those you know, and those who are just like you. Step out into new worlds and invite others into yours. And remember an Island also feels no joy.