A couple of years ago, I was seated outside a conference hall in the lovely Dutch city of Leiden, enjoying the late autumn sun. I saw, coming from far, a young man wearing the Sikh turban, staring at me. He approached, sat next to me, and started to talk. “ I came here, said this man, to tell you that you are right in the path you are taking. I left India, urged by my Guru, to speak to several people all around Europe to deliver them a message, to tell them to pursue their fate”.
Of course, as a Cartesian French man, my first impulse was to run away, or at least, to laugh. But I decided to see where this strange moment might lead me. Suddenly, he took my hand, and started to give some details of my private life, probably because he felt that I was so reluctant to accept his story, and he left. I recall the warmth of his eyes, the energy passing from his hands to mine. And after a moment which lasted no more than 5 to 10 minutes, he left me, stunned, on my bench.
I cannot say that this encounter changed everything in my life. I was already contemplating entering rabbinical school, but I had a deep sense, or feeling of confirmation and of validation that I was not mistaken.
I recently recalled this encounter while I was studying Martin Buber’s philosophy, in particular his major contribution of understanding our relationship to God as a dialogical encounter. He does not seek to describe God’s attributes, nor try to make a systematic theology of the divine. His thought is expounded in his seminal work, Ich und Du, I – Thou, which came out in German in 1923. To Buber, there are two states of relationship with the outside world: I-It and I-Thou. The I-It relationship is the everyday encounter we have with the world, in which we remain independent from the other, whereas in the I-Thou relationship, each partner keeps its own identity, acknowledging the other. Ultimately, according to Buber, in this relationship, we encounter the eternal Thou, God. I-Thou is an equal relationship, based on trust, respect, as if we were able to see in the face of the other some divine sparkles.
These are precious encounters, precious moments, where, in a way, we are called to overcome our boundaries and to see beyond mundane reality.
Abraham’s encounter with the three men at Mamre, at the beginning of our parasha, belongs to these blessed I-Thou moments. Abraham is then allowed to catch a glimpse of his mission. He is an old man, even according to Biblical standards, and he and his wife Sarah have probably given up hope of having children together. Moreover, he has just undergone the painful operation of circumcision at an old age.
“God appeared to him” (Gen 18:1), first of all, according to the Talmud to perform the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick (Sotah 14a), because this day was the third after his circumcision, and God wanted to hear how he was (Baba Metsi’a 86b). Abraham is still recovering, but when he sees the three men coming to him, he asks Sarah to prepare a meal in order to give them hospitality. Abraham makes himself available to his guests, despite his poor condition. (Maybe was he pulling strength from God’s concern for him?)
At that moment, he is told that Sarah will bear a child for him. They are both surprised, and Sarah, who is hidden, asks herself: “now that I am withered, will I have pleasure, with my lord so old” (Gen 18:12). And she laughs! Who can blame Sarah for having this natural reaction? God does not hold this against her; at the most, as a result of his sense of humour, this son will bear the name of Yitzhak, taken from the root meaning “to laugh”.
Laughing is a natural reaction when one is taken by surprise: nevertheless, it probably occurred to her later that something really significant had happened in this encounter. The “I” of Abraham and Sarah had met the divine “Thou”.
Gunther Plaut cites a story, the source of which is not known 1.
“Once, Abraham’s love of strangers clashed with his zeal for God. He invited a wayfarer to his home and, finding him praying to his idol, chased him away. God reprimanded Abraham severely: ‘I have borne with him these many years although he rebelled against Me, and you cannot bear with him one night?’ Abraham realized his sin and did not rest until he had brought the stranger back”.
We never know what is underneath an I-Thou encounter, but we should assume that, in every situation, there is something new to learn, that in a sense we should surrender and accept being surprised by any moment where an unexpected encounter arises.
1 Cf. G. Plaut, The Torah. A Modern Commentary, revised edition, New York, 2006, p. 143.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.