Do Not Go Past Your Servant

“If It Please You, Do Not Go Past Your Servant…”

Praying to G-d—Shavuot—giving of the Ten Commandments, recalling when G-d first spoke, we re-commit to hearing the Voice again.

Leading the service, I see Alice drop her book. Always in the front, where she wants to be. Yet for years, due to progressive MS, she is coping with
dementia usually asleep within the first five minutes. Staff cues her, she awakes, only to doze off again.

Can’t leave the book on the floor—it is sacred. Practice is to pick up a sacred text and kiss it as a token respect and a sign regret at its being subjected to such an indignity.

With no staff around, Do I continue leading the service, or pause the service to step down from the pulpit pick the book up?

I think of Abraham sitting at his tent entrance:

“The Lord appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. 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 he said, “”My lords (Adonai), if it please you, do not go on past your servant…(Gen 18: 1-3).

Gen 18: Abraham sitting at his tent, in the heat of the day. The verses at the end of ch. 17 refer to Abraham personally fulfilling the Divine command to
have himself circumcised. Thus, Jewish tradition understands his sitting at the entrance while he was recuperating, and G-d’s appearing to him as a
Divine role-modeling of the importance of visiting the sick.

To be sure, the traditional understanding is that the Divine Presence
appeared to Abe in the guise of the three visitors who appear at his tent
entrance. As he notices them, he begs them not to leave.

Yet, it is noteworthy that Abraham uses the word Adonai to address his visitor(s). Adonai is literally translated as ‘my lords” (an appropriate form of address to the three men), but it is also more commonly understood as an appellation of intimacy for G-d. With these grammatical particulars in mind, the text can be understood quite differently: that just as G-d appears to Abraham at his tent, the three visitors also show up! A hospitality dilemma: who does he respond to first—God or the men?

We can discern the answer from his own words “if it please you, do not go past your servant…”. This phrase appears in the Hebrew in the form of “2nd
person singular, not 2nd person plural. Thus, Abraham does not address the men, but G-d, as if to say: “Please do not leave just yet. Let me attend to
these three men who have appeared, and then I will come back to you.” Attend to God or to those who are in immediate need?

As Abraham discovered, and as I was reminded once again on that day of “hearing the Voice”)– it’s not supposed to be a question of either/or, but an
affirmation of both.

“If it please You, do not go past your servant”:

I paused the service, picked up the book, gently nudged Alice and put it back in her hand.
Cary Kozberg

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