New Program? Or Old Mitzvah?

English: Table set for Shabbat with challah an...

Many of the established Jewish institutions are in a panic right now:  “Where are the young people? We must find the young people! In fact, where are the people? Why is enrollment so low?”  Synagogues want “programs” that will attract people and will engage them in Jewish life.  Membership in many organizations is dropping, and there is a constant drumbeat for new programs, for new ways of doing religious school, for a new Something to Keep Judaism Alive.

Grumpy old Kohelet tells us in Ecclesiastes that “There is nothing new under the sun.” I tend to think he’s mostly right about that. The Internet is a new tool, yes, but most of what we do with it is not really new. We use it to buy and sell, to tell stories (true and false), and to connect with other people.

That leads me to think that the “new program” so many of us are seeking is probably right under our noses: something already in the Jewish tradition.  We just need to update it, or tweak it — or maybe dust it off and start doing it again. You see, I think that the “program” we seek might be a mitzvah we are neglecting.

Recently I invited my Intro students over for a Shabbat dinner at my apartment. I am not a great cook, or even a particularly good cook, so I made a dependable main dish and the rest was potluck. I specified a dairy meal, but told them not to worry about kashrut beyond “no meat or shellfish please.” I cleared my books and computer off the table, spread a nice tablecloth, got out the candlesticks, bought a challah, opened some wine, and voilá: Shabbat dinner! We had fun, they stayed later than I expected, and afterwards I noticed that things had shifted in the group.  Our relationships had changed: we, all of us, were closer.  And all we did was have dinner together, in my home!

These nice students, some of them Jews, some not, were blown away that I invited them into my home.  Then it hit me: the mitzvah we are neglecting is hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of hospitality.

Right then, I resolved that the doors of my tent needed to be a lot wider.  It was true: when had I last invited guests for Shabbat, or for dinner any other time? When had I opened my home?

Like a lot of other people, I’m not a fancy cook.  I’m not a very good housekeeper, either, and my dinner table doubles as my desk. I have a nice little apartment but it is indeed little. And so I have gotten into the habit of meeting folks elsewhere, because I’m ashamed of my housekeeping and my cooking and all that, and often in my off hours I’m just tired.  And reviewing all that, all I can think to say to myself is “What kind of Jew am I?”  Abraham and Sarah had a tent open on all four sides! Hachnasat orchim is an important mitzvah!

So: here’s my  resolution, my teshuvah for neglecting this important mitzvah: I’m going to start inviting folks over. The place isn’t fancy, but I can keep it tidy. (Really.) The food won’t be fancy (it may be takeout).  The welcome is the thing. I will invite them into my Jewish life, and that of my family, and we’ll have fun. Our relationships will become closer.  It will be good for the Jews.

And that, my friends, is nothing new under the sun. But it’s one heck of a “program.”

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