Jewish History Today: Venetian Kindness

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    In 1630, the Jewish community of Venice could not help but notice the plague ravaging its surrounding regions. One of its members composed a special liturgy to keep the plague at bay. It was to be recited after the reading of the Torah. It featured excerpts from Psalms and passages from the Torah treating of healing and divine protection. Like many other prayers scripted to combat epidemics, it placed a special emphasis on the pitom ha-ketoret. It was the incense, the Torah tells us, that Aharon used to stop the plague we read about just a short time ago in parshatKorach.

    As a preface to the ketoret passage, the liturgy cited a verse that seems out of place. So Avraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quickly: prepare three seah of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” What is the connection?

    On a kabbalistic level, Avraham’s actions in the scene with his three visitors prefigure Temple offerings. And the haste described here corresponds to the haste of Aharon’s actions. “Go quickly,” Moshe said, “and provide atonement for the people.” The Jews of Venice were asking the Almighty to respond to their tefillot the way He would respond were they offering korbanot in the Temple. With the same urgency they asked that He put an end to the plague.

    But perhaps there is another reason that the Jews of Venice called up this verse from Genesis. It is, after all, the paradigm for chesed in the life of Avraham and in the value system of his descendants. If they were going to ask Hashem to deal compassionately with them, they had to demonstrate the capacity to deal compassionately with one another.

    The world is in need of more prayer. But it’s also in need of more kindness. We need to redouble our efforts to offer companionship to those who are alone. And we need to offer solace and strength to those who are struggling during these times. Like the Jews of seventeenth-century Venice, let’s put chesed at the forefront of our consciousness. And like Avraham and Sarah, let’s act quickly.

    Yosie Levine
    Rabbi (Jewish Center)

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