The Oaks of Mamre

 

 The Oaks of Mamre                                                                         14 June 2020

“The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground…”

So begins our first reading, a reading from the Old Testament – indeed from the firt book, the book of Genesis. Let’s spend a little time there this morning. What is going on?  We are told that “The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre…” Abraham is camped there – he is sitting at the entrance of his tent “in the heat of the day…” He looks up and sees three men. Who are they?

Abraham offers them hospitality. “…Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves… To which “they” reply, “Do as you have said.”  Abraham goes into the tent and tells his wife Sarah to make cakes. Then Abraham goes to his herd, picks out a choice calf, and directs one of his servants to prepare it.

Once everything is ready the feast is set before the visitors under one of the oaks. Abraham stands by as they eat.

“They” ask Abraham, “Where is your wife Sarah?” “There, in the tent.”

Then “one” says, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” Both Abraham and Sarah are quite old and Sarah who is listening to this conversation from the tent laughs. Then “the Lord” says, “Why did Sarah laugh…? Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?...Sarah shall have a son.”

This prophecy comes to pass. She gives birth.  Abraham and Sarah’s son Issac is the beginning of the Jewish people including a certain Jewish carpenter maybe some two thousand years later.

The story was told and re-told over many years before being put down in writing. In the years to come this mysterious visit of the three men came to be seen by some as a “visit” of the Trinity. One of the most famous representations of this story is the Icon by Andrei Rublev of Russia done by him in the early years of the 1600’s called – of course - the “Trinity.” If you were to see a copy you would probably say to yourself, “Oh, I’ve seen that.”

It is an Icon of great beauty. How do you “explain” the Trinity, the doctrine of the Trinity, God in Three Persons. Last Sunday – Trinity Sunday – Fr Carey talked to us about this doctrine. Rublev’s Icon is also an exposition or maybe a prayer in Icon form of the Trinity – the beauty and harmony of the Three Figures – the love each has for the Others…the love all have for us…

Did all of this happen? Is this a real place?  Three miles North of a landmark in the West Bank city of Hebron is the location of the oaks of “Mamre.” On a mostly vacant piece of ground maybe a couple of acres in size with various buildings surrounding it and scattered stones on it which are the remains of  a structure built by Herod the Great this is how it looks today. Given the tensions of the Middle East it is not much visited.  In Hebron is the landmark of the Tomb of Abraham  built by Herod the Great. It was built over caves thought to be the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, and others and revered by Jews and Muslims to this day.  

This year when so much has been going on is the 75th anniversary of the Allied liberation of the concentration camps toward the end of World War II. It has been little noted. Many of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah met their deaths - some six million or so - during those times and particularly in those concentration camps. So much has happened, is happening this year that this anniversary is probably something few of us have thought about. Most of us are not Jewish. Yet our Savior is Jewish, our faith has deep Jewish roots.

I read an article recently about that anniversary and that liberation. (1) The author is a Jewish rabbi, Meir Soloveichik. I found it sort of interesting.

Among other things he recalled the eyewitness accounts of two members of the American military in that liberation. One was Dwight Eisenhower and the other Meyer Birnbaum an Orthodox Jew from New York.

Quoting Rabbi Soloveichik: “Eisenhower entered Ohrdruf [adjacent to Buchenwald] with Patton and Omar Bradley. Patton grew queasy and refused to enter parts of the camps, but Eisenhower insisted on examining every inch. He then insisted that all Germans in the area be brought to look upon what their people had brought about.”

“One of the most iconic images of Eisenhower in Ohrdruf features a man who appears to be a German civilian talking to Eisenhower. The German is standing before gallows describing how the Nazis utilized hanging with piano wire, to torture and kill their prisoners.”

The other member of the American military is Lieutenant Meyer Birnbaum, a young Orthodox Jew from New York. He served in George S. Patton’s Third Army. He was part of the first American forces that entered Ohrdruf and Buchenwald. He ended staying for six months in Germany after the war  to help address the needs of concentration camp survivors.

Continuing with Rabbi Soloveichik: “[Lieutenant Birnbaum] came upon two skeletal Jews, one middle-aged, the other a teenager. As he spoke to them in Yiddish, the youth began to weep, pleading with Birnbaum to teach him how to “do teshuva,” that is, how to perform repentance, as Jews are commanded to do on the Day of Atonement.

“The boy had never experienced Yom Kippur as an adult, had never gone through the full rituals of atonement Jews perform every year. Nevertheless, the question was an odd one; why would this boy have to repent? Birnbaum sought to reassure him: “After the stretch in hell you’ve been through,” he said, “you don’t have to worry about doing teshuva. Your slate is clean.” This failed to console the boy, who proceeded to tell his story….”

“Two months ago, a prisoner escaped…The Nazis ordered fathers and sons to step forward. My father and I stood before the commandant. The Nazis put my father in the gallows, strung a noose around his neck, and aimed a Luger at me. ‘If you or your father don’t tell me who escaped, you are going to kick that stool out from under your father.’

‘I looked at my father and told him, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t do it.

‘My father said, ‘My son, you have to do it. He’s got a gun to your head and he’s going to kill you if you don’t, and then he’ll kick the chair out from under me and we’ll both be gone…’

‘I will not do it – I did not forget the commandment of honoring my father.’

‘Instead of being comforted by my words, my father suddenly screamed at me, ‘You talk about honoring your father. I’m ordering you to kick that stool. That is your father’s command.’

'No father, I won’t.’

‘But my father only got angrier. ‘This is your father’s last order to you. Listen to me! Kick the chair!’

‘I was so frightened and confused hearing my father screaming at me that I kicked the chair and watched as my father’s neck snapped in the noose.”

“Birnbaum wept, as the young man stared at the him. ‘Now you tell me, Do I have to do teshuva?’

Rabbi Soloveichik continued his story of the concentration camp survivor: “For those familiar with Jewish tradition, this story is particularly painful. Judaism is a familial faith; it is passed down from parents to children, and thus Judaism’s own perpetuation rests on the obligation to honor one’s father and mother. …Here the horrific irony is exposed: A boy observed the obligation to honor one’s father and thereby lengthened his own life- by killing the very same father. A new dimension to Nazi evil thus emerges. Destroying the physical bodies of the Jewish people was, for the Germans, insufficient; they had to take all that was good, and pure, about Judaism and turn it against the Jews themselves.  Yet rightly understood, even at the heart of this terrible story there is something extraordinary. Because of our obligation to the past, the Jewish link between generations is the source of our immortality.”

As I’ve thought about this story – and it’s been on my mind since I read it – I’ve had some reactions.

If nothing else I guess I have a little bit better appreciation of Dwight Eisenhower. As a kid I can remember him a little bit. All I remember about him then was that he liked to play golf. Obviously, he was an outstanding military leader leading the Allied Forces to victory in World War II. I’ve come to think that maybe part of his success in that role was his understanding of the truly evil nature of who we were up against.

Also, I was interested to hear how he insisted some of the German people see firsthand what their country had done. I recall reading how Dietrich Bonhoeffer immediately after  Kristallnacht several years earlier tried to warn the German people – and the people of the world – about the evil of the Nazis. How much grief and destruction the world would have been spared had the German people or the world generally really paid attention then.

We are in unhappy and troubled times.

In our Gospel reading from Matthew we see Jesus sending out his disciples to share the Good News. He is sending us out as well. He was sending them out – and sends us out and tells us – “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves.”

Well, He wasn’t kidding.

Just how accurate was brought home in a short article in the Wall Street Journal by Gerald F. Seib (3).  Its title tells the story, “Crises Lay Bare American Deficit of Goodwill.

He talks about lot of the things that have happened recently: “the pandemic and associated economic shock followed by the brutal killing of a black man and the ensuring protests.” He comments that, “in an idealized world, these shocks might have pulled the country together.”

But they haven’t.

He asks why.

Part of the answer he suggests may be “a growing tendency to see that those with whom we disagree as not merely wrong but evil.” He cites some studies and surveys.

“A 2019 survey sponsored by the Brookings Institution…found that 82% of Republicans think the Democratic party has been taken over by socialists. On the other [hand], 80% of Democrats think the Republican Party has been taken over by racists.”

Another study “cited a survey showing that nearly 60% of Republicans and more than 60% of Democrats agreed that the opposing party is a serious threat to the U.S. and its people. Just over 40% of those in each party thought the opposing party wasn’t just worse for politics, but ‘downright evil.’”

Yet He sends us. God sends us out.

So what do we do? How do we do it?

We pray. We pray for those we speak to. We pray for those we work with. We pray for all those with whom we come into contact. We pray that we may truly love them and want the best for them.

We pray for ourselves. We pray that God give us the wisdom, the strength, and especially the love to do those things He calls on us to do.

We pray for all those who have been mistreated. We pray for all who have been mistreated over the years and those who may be mistreated now.  Where and when we have sinned, we pray for forgiveness. We forgive those who have hurt or sinned against us in the past and even now.

Evil will not prevail.  At the end of the day God is in charge. In the meantime, as St. Paul tells us, we remember that all we go through, all our sufferings, all of that produces endurance, and that endurance produces character, and that character forged in suffering and endurance produces hope. 

 

That hope will not disappoint. Because through that hope, God’s love has been poured into our hearts.

Amen.

Richard Robertson

 

(1) “The Best Revenge” Meir Y. Soloveichik – Commentary – June, 2020, Page 12

(2) Lieutenant Birnbaum, A Soldier’s Story – Meyer Birnbaum with Yonason Rosenblum, Mesoriah Publications, Ltd., 1993

(3) “Crises Lay Bare America’s Deficit of Goodwill, Gerald F. Seib, Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2020, Page A4

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