Are you normal? What does being normal mean? And most importantly, who cares?
You may be wondering why I am asking you this question. Don’t take it personally.
The reason that I think that this is worth thinking about is (believe it or not) the two extremes that you see in the Parshah in the way that Avraham and Lot related to the concept of giving. Which way was normal?
The Parshah begins with telling you about The Next Day (or more accurately three days later). Don’t you wonder about The Next Day (or better still, the next year). What would it be like to revisit Cinderella 20 years later, when she is a bit heavy, uses significant amounts of face cream, and has done t'shuvah so that she can wear a sheitel? In a more serious vein, what would it be like to be Pinchas the week after his moment of choice and heroism?
The Parsha takes you to Avraham sitting in front of his tent 3 days after his bris (when presumably the ancient world’s version of CNN would have already run of their story ‘Religious Fanatic Commits Act of Self-Mutilation in Chevron). They probably would hardly cover in the enormous changes in the world’s future atresult of the covenant. Ramban tells us that Avraham’s friend Mamre got it. He knew that from that day onward, he was no longer Avraham’s equal. He accepted the spiritual journey. This was very different from the transcendental religions in which the body and soul are perceived as being eternal enemies.
Now we find Avraham three days later, not surrounded by people. What was he doing? Looking outward, waiting to see if in spite of the extreme heat, he would find someone who needed a meal, a place to be, a bit of shade, and more than a bit of inspiration. If the word normal means. Normal, Avraham was not Normal. Merriam Webster’s definition of normal is conforming to a type, standard, or regular pattern: characterized by that which is considered usual, typical, or routine .
Lot had left Avraham and moved to Sodom. In fact, he was at that time the judge of Sodom, the Sodomer Rebbe if you will. What was Sodom like? It is described as a place of evil and sin. When a person says “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is (also) mine”, Pirkei Avos says, “this is the trait of Sodom, but it also provides you with an alternative definition - saying, “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours” You can see the problem with the first definition. It turns being a card-carrying member of Sodomian society into a thief, after other people's possessions, the ultimate taker. The second description sounds more like down-home justice. Certainly normal enough. In the Torah it is called evil and sinful, not just another version of normal.
Initial Conclusion: Avraham was not normal. Lot was.
Final Conclusion: Being normal isn’t what life is about. Being the maximum person you can be, is.
One of the more interesting things about Avraham, is that the Torah doesn’t tell us what the steps were that led him to becoming the man that he was. The first time that his name is mentioned is to inform you of his birth, and the second time of having a prophetic experience in which he is told to leave everything familiar behind, and to go to wherever Hashem will show him. Ramban mentions that we don’t need to know the steps. You can see the finished product, step back and get something of a glimpse of what it would take to get there. Avraham had to break idols, face fire, and bring literally thousands of people to “learning” Hashem. The longest narrative that we have about him, however, is however today’s narrative, the one that tells you that at his age, on a hot day, in real physical discomfort, he was looking for opportunities to give hospitality to whomever he could find. For him, giving was life itself. He recognized Hashem from an early age as the host of the world, wanted a life in which connection to the Source was real, and became a giver. His “normal” was an exact opposite of Lot’s “normal”.
Jews are not normal.
Our real heroes are the ones who give their lives, their time, their hearts, their resources. They aren’t the takers, the ones who “made it”, or the ones who “have it all”. There are many Jews who have succeeded in the “normal” world, and they are often fine people, but they are not our heroes because of their success, if they are heroes, it is because of what they gave.
You have a body and a soul. Each one stakes a claim to your identity. The soul loves to give, to contribute and to make a difference. It’s drawn to movement and life. The body loves to receive, to take in, to relax, and most of all to consume and to conquer. Neither one of them can live alone. They were created to live in harmony. In fact, the message of the bris is that this is what being Jewish is all about. You were created for having a broad inclusive identity. Some of us do it better than others.
Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the previous Rosh Yeshiva of Mir, knew how to do it. He was one of the Great Abnormal Personalities of Our Time.
He loved giving. Each student was a favorite. He made program after program so that everyone who wants to learn Torah can find where he can find what he wants on the level that he needs, from the senior students with their breathtaking dazzling encyclopedic knowledge, to the ones who got their ears wet in the baal teshuva yeshivas, and were now ready for something more. He would break the ice by making ordinary conversation with people who were overawed. I once saw him at a bar-mitzvah. I was sitting on the other side of the mechitza, so I could hear the conversation between him and one of the regular Har Nofians. At that point of his life, he was seriously disabled by the Parkinson’s that he lived with for over a decade. For that reason, instead of approaching the buffet table, the host brought him an array of the selections. Our hero Har Nofian apparently wanted to keep the Rosh Yeshiva company, so sat down next to him. I caught a glimpse of the “Uh what do I say now” look on his face. So did the Rosh Yeshiva. After all, sharing a Dvar Torah form Torah Anytime didn’t seem all that appropriate when your audience is the head of the world’s largest yeshiva, and making small talk seemed even less appropriate. Rav Nosson Tzvi caught on immediately. He turned to the man and asked, “Do you think that Classic Coke really tastes any different than regular Coke?” The ice was broken, the man felt at home, and Avraham’s abnormal descendent was in his element.
Rav Finkel’s yahrzeit was this week along with Rachel Immenu’s. When I think of them, my desire to move beyond the taker oriented vocabulary of today’s world (boundaries, self-care, just be normal, etc.) becomes almost tangible.
How about you?