Remarks from the Institute for Interfaith Dialog’s Iftar Dinner on October 8, 2007:
1 The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. 2 Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, 3 he said, “My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. 5 And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then go on—seeing that you have come your servant’s way.” They replied, “Do as you have said.”
Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Quick, three seahs of choice flour! Knead and make cakes!” 7 Then Abraham ran to the herd, took a calf, tender and choice, and gave it to a servant-boy, who hastened to prepare it. 8 He took curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared and set these before them; and he waited on them under the tree as they ate.
This story from the Book of Genesis is foundational for Jews, since it illustrates the value of hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests. Of course, the value is not unique to us, nor are we the only ones who learn from our sacred texts. As I read the story, Christians in attendance may have thought about its restatement in the Letter to the Hebrews, or of that moment near the end of the Gospel according to Matthew, when Jesus teaches his disciples: “For I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me.” Muslim culture has raised hospitality to an art form, and if you’ve ever lingered over coffee and sweets in a Muslim home you’ve helped your hosts fulfill the teaching of Muhammad: “Indeed whoever believes that Allah is All-Generous, Who provides for His creation and rewards those who are hospitable towards their guests, should look after his guest.”
Across all faiths and peoples, welcoming the other into one’s heart and home is lifted up as a value. Knowing that, I am so grateful to the Institute for Interfaith Dialog for inviting me to attend this dinner, and for inviting to bring along a delegation from the Jewish community. We appreciate your hospitality so much. Our tradition places a tremendous emphasis on hachnasat orchim – welcoming guests – and are delighted to be your guests tonight.
Finding shared values that cross religious lines, such as hachnasat orchim, is one of the great benefits of an event such as this. Interfaith dialog that allows us to appreciate our commonalities is a good thing; but it is not enough. The very best dialog is that sort which celebrates both our commonalities and our differences. We are not here to convert each other, but to learn from each other and to grow more deeply rooted in our own faiths.
Jews learn the value of celebrating difference in the section of the Torah that we read this week, the stories of Noah and the Tower of Babel. Listen to this passage; the Ark has come to rest and God has promised never to destroy the earth again:
12 God… said, “This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you, and every living creature with you, for all ages to come. 13 I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, 15 I will remember My covenant between Me and you and every living creature among all flesh, so that the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. 16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures, all flesh that is on earth. 17 That,” God said to Noah, “shall be the sign of the covenant that I have established between Me and all flesh that is on earth.”
Now the bow is primarily about God’s declared cease-fire. The bow – think of archery here – is pointed away from the earth, in a sign of peace. But we ought to learn not only from the shape of the bow, and its direction, but also from its color. The symbol of peace and blessing after the flood is a spectrum – light refracted into all colors. The rainbow reminds us of the blessing of peace…and also of the blessing of diversity.
That value is lifted up even more explicitly in the story of the tower, where it is the unanimity of language and purpose that creates the rift between God and humanity. Again, listen to the text:
1 Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. 2 And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” — Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar. — 4 And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” 5 The Lord came down to look at the city and tower that man had built, 6 and the Lord said, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach. 7 Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 8 Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel, because there the Lord confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
God does not want us speaking the same language, building the same tower. Why not? I imagine that, from God’s perspective, an entire world speaking the same words, singing the same hymns, offering the same praise, would be tremendously boring, as it were. And so, God scatters us about, so that language and locale, culture and creativity will all come to bear, creating a veritable rainbow of praise.
Here in El Paso, tonight, we celebrate that rainbow of praise, the many paths to the One God. May this celebration never cease; indeed, may it grow more joyous in the fullness of time, as we learn to cherish each other, in all our difference, in all God’s glory.