Friday, November 7, 2014

There's Something Bigger Than Phil: A Patriarchs Lesson in Pluralism (Vayeira 5775)

Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner
©Robert Trachtenberg
If you grew up listening to recordings of the fictional Two-Thousand Year Old Man (TYOM), as I did, then you already know the story that sets-up the punchline, "There's something bigger than Phil!"  

The TYOM is the invention of comedians Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.  They imagined what it would be like to interview someone who was over 2,000 years old.  One part of their sketch involves the start of religion.  Reiner playing the interviewer asks Brooks playing the TYOM whether he was alive before people believed in God. "Oh, yeah, a few years before," answered TYOM.  

"Did you believe in anything?  Did you believe in any Superior Being?"  "Yes!  A guy named Phil!" replied TYOM  

"Who was Phil?" "Phillip.  The leader.  The leader of our tribe.  He was very big. Very strong.  A big beard, big chest, big arms.  I mean, he could kill you.  So, we did everything he asked.  He could just walk on you and you could die."

"And you revered him?"  TYOM answered, "We prayed to him.  Would you like to hear one of our prayers to Phillip?" "Yes, we would."

TYOM then recited one of the "ancient" prayers, "Ohhhh, Phillip.  Ohhhh Phillip. Please don't take our eyes out and don't pinch us and don't hurt us.  Ohhh Phillip, don't step on us.  Leave us alone.  Ohhhhhh Phillip.  Aaaaaaamen!" 

"How long was his reign?"  "Oh, not too long.  Because one day Phillip was hit by lightning.  And we looked up, we said . . . 'There's something bigger than Phil!'"


I think of this sketch whenever reading about Abraham in the Torah, as in this week's portion, Vayeira.  Abraham and Sarah not only experience a profound relationship beyond themselves, but also welcome others to join. Together they demonstrate unparalleled hospitality.  For example in this week's Torah portion we learn that when an elderly Abraham sees three strangers near his tent he rushes out to greet and welcome them.  He invites them to bathe their feet and recline.  He offers them food.  (Genesis 18: 1-2.)  

Abraham's hospitality become legendary.  His tent was open on all four sides so that travelers might find their way with ease.  If a guest was hungry, Abraham gave him food; if she needed clothing, Abraham gave her garments.  

According to one legend, whenever a guest thanked Abraham he answered "Don't thank me. Give thanks to the true God." Then Abraham's guest would acknowledge God and offer thanks.  Thus, Abraham's home was not only a place of rest for the wanderer, but also of teaching awareness of that which is bigger than us.  

One stormy night, an old man stumbled into Abraham's tent.  Abraham made a fire to warm the traveler, then washed his feet, gave him fresh garments, and served him food.

"Now I will thank my god who led me to your dwelling", the old man said. From his bosom he took a small wooden idol, and before it knelt in prayer. Abraham spoke softly, "Aren't you embarrassed to bow before a piece of carved wood, an image made by the hand of man? Instead you should thank the true God who created heaven and earth . . ."  But the stranger interrupted Abraham, "This is the god I have worshiped all my life. I do not know your god." 

Abraham grew so angry that the man refused to honor Abraham's god that he threw the man out of his tent and into the dark night.  Abraham anticipated that God would be pleased that he had not let the man pray to mere idols.  Instead, later that night, God asked of Abraham what happened to the old man that had Abraham had fed and sheltered.  "Oh him?!?," replied Abraham, "I threw him out. He refused to pray to You and I could not accept him any longer!"  

God was, so to speak, shocked saying, "Abraham, I have accepted that man his whole life. All this time I have kept and sustained him. But you could not endure a single night with him!  Who are you to throw him into the night?"  With that Abraham realized his mistake and raced into the darkness to find the old man to apologize and bring him back into the tent filled with warmth and light.

It was only then that Abraham truly realized there was someone bigger than he was. To appreciate that meant for Abraham making room in his tent for those whose perspective on God was different from his own.  To appreciate that in our lives means to embrace the diversity of our world.  To build community within it knowing that there's somebody bigger than us, even somebody bigger than Phil. Our devotion to pluralism and diversity is nothing if it is merely academic exercise.  It must manifest itself in how we genuinely welcome and accept those who see the world differently than we do.  May we have the strength this week to resist the temptation to make ourselves bigger than others around us and the wisdom to appreciate their differences from us.

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