Genesis chapter 18 and mindfulness practice


In a recent interview in Reform Judaism magazine about renewing Jewish prayer, Rabbi Nancy Flam (no relation) one of the founders of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, says, “we must move away from ‘attending services’ to ‘engaging in prayer practice.’”

What does she mean by “prayer practice?” Chapter 18 in the book of Genesis gives a hint about a prayer practice – mindfulness meditation that we might consider cultivating. “Lifting the eyes” features prominently in this story about Abraham. At key moments, we are told that Abraham looks up and sees something that changes his destiny (which is, after all, our history). Unpacking the Hebrew carefully yields an interesting lesson for practitioners of mindfulness. A careful reading of the biblical text shows us how three things happen in quick succession: there is first a lifting of the eyes, followed by seeing, and finally, beholding.

As chapter 18 begins, Abraham is sitting at the entrance to his tent during the hottest part of the day, when “he lifted his eyes, and he saw, and behold: three men, standing right near him” (Gen 18:2). The Midrash connects Abraham’s sitting with his recent circumcision, and understand God’s appearance (in the guise of the three men) as an act of bikkur holim, visiting the sick.

Perhaps there is another way to interpret the story. Maybe Abraham was sitting because he was “sitting in meditation.”

Imagine Abraham in his comfortable chair (or maybe he’s on a cushion). Imagine him getting settled, hands resting in his lap, torso rising out of his pelvis, head not too far forward, not too far back, focusing on his breath, quieting his mind as he sits … and sits.

It is out of the sitting that the eye-lifting, seeing and beholding arise; then everything else follows. Abraham welcomes the stranger, hears momentous news about an impending family addition, accompanies his guests on their way, stands up for the innocent people of Sodom and Gomorrah, all in the wake of the eye-lifting/seeing/beholding, which came about as he allowed his mind to quiet in meditation.

The text goes on to report that God set out to do as he had told Abraham, raining destruction on the Cities of the Plain. And Abraham went home, too. Interestingly, the syntax suggests not a one-time returning, part of the narrative flow, but rather a habitual action. V’avraham shav limkomo, “now Abraham would return to his place.”

Sometimes “place” isn’t just any place. In our tradition, when the word makom appears our rabbis hear an echo of Hamakom, “the Omnipresent One,” one of their favorite designations for God. And just why is God Hamakom? “God is the place of the world, but the world is not God’s place” Our teacher Arthur Green reminds us that “the phrase, and even the word makom (place) as a name for God, has long been used to provide justification for a Jewish panentheism, the world included or ‘located’ within the Divine” (“Seek My Face,” p. 193).

V’avraham shav limkomo, now Abraham would return, again and again, to an awareness that the world was nothing more than a manifestation of the One in whom it is located. And as long as we’ve come this far, is it too much of a stretch to hear the whisper of a yud in that sentence? V’Avraham (ya)shav limkomo, “now Abraham would sit with an awareness of divine omnipresence.”

Read this way, Genesis chapter 18 becomes a meditation on the benefits of mindfulness practice. We see Abraham engaging in his practice (sitting by the tent), awakening to awareness (the eye-lifting, seeing, beholding), acting with skill and compassion in the world ... and finally, returning to his place, and to his Place.

RABBI ALAN FLAM is director of Advising and Community Collaborations at the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University. He leads a monthly Shabbat morning service at Temple Emanu-El in Providence that incorporates mindfulness practice as well as yoga, chanting and traditional davening