Hospitality For Growth

Lighting chanukiot at our Chanukah party.
Lighting the candles at our Chanukah party.

Long-time readers may remember my Hospitality Challenge: 16 months ago I challenged myself to grow in the mitzvah of hospitality. Yes, it is an actual mitzvah: Abraham and Sarah are famous for their hospitality. The Torah commands us to follow their example. After all, this is how all of us learn to “do Jewish:” not from a class or a book, but from observing the mitzvot with other Jews.

What I didn’t expect was that hospitality could also be an avenue for personal and spiritual growth.

Here’s where we started: I’m an introvert married to an introvert’s introvert. We are not great housekeepers, nor are we good cooks. We were both intimidated by the idea of opening our home to people who might (eep!) judge us on our housekeeping and cooking.

We’ve had fewer Shabbat guests than I originally hoped, but we have hosted more people in the past year than ever before.  We have celebrated almost every Jewish holiday with friends and family and some new friends (aka “strangers.”) Sukkot and Chanukah each saw a large gathering at the house. During the summer, I hosted regular Torah study gatherings here, and we’ve had countless folks over for an afternoon or an evening.

We’ve had great dinners, and burned dinners, gatherings where we were overrun with guests (who thought they’d all say yes?) and gatherings we canceled for lack of guests. There have been some wonderful people here, and a few who’ve been a challenge. And yet one thing has been constant: after the guests left, there was a glow that remained, a sense that home was indeed a holy place of warmth and friendship.

Here are some things I’ve learned:

  1. Nobody cares that the rabbi’s desk looks like a tag sale.
  2. If the main dish is a bust, the pizza place down the hill delivers.
  3. To carry out this mitzvah, I had to learn to ask for and accept help.
  4. People will bring food if you ask them to ahead of time.
  5. A plan for the evening is nice but not necessary.
  6. All guests go home eventually.
  7. Jewish warmth and Jewish blessings make everything glow.
  8. Jewish hospitality grows our Jewish souls.

Taking on this mitzvah has made me grow into a happier person and a better Jew. Here’s to 16 more months (and more!) of sharing the joy.

Vayera: The Care of Visitors

"The Hospitality of Abraham" 13th c. Byzantine icon
“The Hospitality of Abraham” 13th c. Byzantine icon

Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1 – 22:24) offers a lesson on the mitzvah of hospitality. Abraham, our role model, runs to greet his guests, even though they are unexpected, even though he is old and recovering from circumcision. The text is generous with details: he washes their feet, calls upon Sarah to bake, and orders a calf slaughtered and dressed. Abraham himself waits upon their table.

The contrast is stark between that story and the next. The angels proceed to the city of Sodom. Lot greets them at the gate, hurrying them to his house. Lot is afraid for a reason: a mob surrounds the house and demands that the strangers be given to them: they intend to rape them. The prophet Ezekiel clarified: “See, this was the sin of your sister Sodom: pride, gluttony, and uncaring were in her and her daughters, nor did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49) The Talmud expands on the story, explaining that the men of Sodom systematically abused all strangers and the poor in their city, enshrining that abuse in law. (Sanhedrin 109a-b) Like all rape, this was not a sin of sex, but a sin of violence. These sins merited their utter destruction.

This week we might ask ourselves: when did I last personally welcome a stranger to my table? Or have I reserved my personal hospitality for those best known to me, and to those who might profit me? Does my community welcome visitors, or only look to profit from them? Are we following the example of Abraham, or Sodom?

A version of this d’var Torah [word of Torah] originally appeared in the September 2014 issue of the CCAR Newsletter.

Abraham’s Mitzvah: Hospitality

Invite someone for coffee!
Invite someone for coffee!

Jewish Hospitality

is an important and often neglected mitzvah.

BIBLICAL ORIGIN – There are many examples in Torah of the patriarchs observing the mitzvah of hospitality. Possibly the most famous is in Genesis 18, when Abraham ran to meet his guests at Mamre, and hurried to feed them, even though he was still recovering from his circumcision.

LIFE AND DEATH – Hospitality in the Bible was not just being friendly, or inviting people over. If travelers could not find a safe place to rest, they could die. It was part of the social contract of the wilderness to welcome strangers. It was also part of that contract for strangers to behave themselves as guests. In much of Jewish history, Jews were not safe except in the homes and settlements of other Jews, and so it has remained a sacred duty to care for visitors, and to cherish hosts.

WHAT ABOUT TODAY? – Today hachasat orchim (literally, “bringing guests in”) remains a mitzvah. You might say, well, rabbi, we have hotels and restaurants for that! We have Jewish institutions for that! But today many of us are aching for personal connection. We are not nomads like Abraham, but often our families of origin and our old friends live far away.  We human beings are social creatures, and we crave connection to others.  There are few ways to better get to know someone than to visit them in their home, or to welcome them into yours. And yet many of us only see other Jews in synagogue, or maybe at events.

THE HOST - A Jewish host is responsible for making her guests welcome, and to see to it that they are not embarrassed in any way.  It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests.

THE GUEST – A Jewish guest should do his best not to be a burden to his host. (This is not accomplished by prefacing demands with “I don’t want to be any trouble, but…”) Say “Please” and “Thank you.” Do not embarrass the host by asking rude questions or criticizing. After being a guest, send a thank you note, or at least an email. For more about being a guest, see 5 Ways to be a Great Shabbat Dinner Guest.

THE MAIN THING – Rabbi Nachman of Braslav said, “All the world is a narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.” It is easy to get stuck thinking that I don’t want to have anyone over because my apartment isn’t nice enough, or my cooking isn’t fancy, or because I fear some other judgment that a guest may bring. To conquer these fears, invite someone you are sure will be kind, or someone you think probably never gets invitations. If they say “no” don’t take it personally – people say “no” for a lot of reasons – but invite someone else. If you really can’t see opening your home, invite them to meet you for coffee! Don’t stand trembling at the edge of the narrow bridge: pick up the phone or the keyboard, and invite someone to do something with you.

If you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!

 

10 Ways to Enhance Your Jewish Home

 

Shabbat on a card table.
Shabbat on a card table.

I’ve written before about the ways in which the Jewish home is a mikdash me’at, a little sanctuary. Taking care of your home is an important part of Jewish living, whether you live in a tiny studio apartment or a mansion. Here are some simple ways you can make your home more of a sanctuary, a safe, calm place in the world. Choose one or two and see what happens after a month or two:

1. Make your home as safe as possible. Did you know that this is an actual mitzvah? Deuteronomy 22:8 says that when you build a new house, put a railing around the roof, so no one will fall off. The rabbis extended that mitzvah to include fixing all things that are unsafe around your home. Get rid of frayed electrical cords and things that can trip someone. Change that light bulb: it’s a mitzvah!

2. Display whatever Judaica you own. Use your Chanukah menorah to decorate during the 35 weeks a year it isn’t covered in wax! Let your Shabbat candlesticks decorate your bookshelves during the week, instead of sitting in a cabinet. Whatever you do, don’t worry that the room looks “too Jewish” – it’s a Jewish home, after all!

3. Chores: If you can’t get out of them, get into them. In The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, she suggests that one way to be happier at home is to attack those chores that you don’t want to do. Feign enthusiasm until you feel it. Crank up the volume on music from your high school days. Focus on the details you do like. These, too, are a way of making home safer.

4. Display photos of the people and places you love. You will feel happier every time you look at them. Pictures are not just for your computer screen and your phone!

5. Establish routines. Since Friday night is Shabbat, have a Thursday night or Friday morning routine to get ready for Shabbat. It might be preparing to make challah – or it might be something as simple as cleaning the kitchen and setting out the Shabbat candles. Use the post-Shabbat “burst of energy” to get chores or work done. Have Shabbat routines!

6. Make your bed every morning. Speaking of routines: making your bed is a three-minute task that gets your day started with a positive accomplishment, and means that when you come to bed at night, your place of rest is restful. What a concept!

7. Observe Jewish time in your home. Keep Shabbat in some form. Observe the holidays, at least in small ways. Get a Jewish calendar and display it – or import one onto your smartphone.

8. Invite guests over. Hospitality is a mitzvah. It’s called hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. You don’t have to feed them something fancy, just make them welcome. Get takeout and share it on the kitchen table or a card table. Better yet, invite them for Shabbat dinner.

9. Be mindful about consumption of media. Don’t let upsetting news stories run over and over. If you need “background noise” try music.

10. Kindness spoken here. Think twice about the words you use and allow into the house. Treat words that embarrass and words that spread gossip as a kind of filth – don’t let them in!  Words are part of the atmosphere of your home, part of the furniture. That goes for “helpful” words that hurt feelings, too.

To some of these, you may be thinking, “That’s Jewish?” but seriously, making your home a place of refuge from the world is part of making a Jewish home.

May your home, and the homes of all Israel, be places of light and love!

Improving My Hospitality

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It’s time to outgrow the fantasy.

The biggest barrier to my observance of the mitzvah of hospitality was my conviction that if someone saw my home looking the least bit out of order, something terrible would happen: the sun will explode, a large earthquake will destroy the West Coast, or I will die of embarrassment. I have had a tendency in the past to think that I will invite people over “later,” when things look “nicer.”

The catch is, I am a busy person, and I am also an untidy person. As a result, my House Beautiful fantasy has prevented me from observing the mitzvah of hospitality as often as I might. One of my successes of late has been relaxing that silly fantasy and focusing more on making guests comfortable than on maintaining an image, while at the same time working on the tidiness thing. After all, if this home of mine is my mikdash me’at, my little sanctuary, shouldn’t I keep it tidy?

This past week, I hosted Shabbat dinner at my home for my students. When they arrived, I wasn’t quite done with the frenzy of cleaning, cooking and arranging, and the first guests arrived as I was wrestling the extra leaves into my table. I was embarrassed (but I didn’t die) and nothing else terrible happened. The guests helped me with the final setup: setting the table, and it looked like they had a good time arranging my china and placemats and such.

Read that last sentence again: they had a good time. It had never occurred to me that setting the table could be part of the evening’s entertainment. When I think about the times I’ve been asked to pitch in at other people’s homes, I recall that it actually made me feel more at home. So from now on, that’s part of the evening: “Let’s set the table!”

So, going forward with my growth in this mitzvah, I’m going to experiment with some changes:

  1. Leave the table expanded.
  2. Make the next invitations today.
  3. Find a vegetarian main dish I can prepare the day before.
  4. Look into hiring some weekly assistance with housework.
  5. Put “Shabbat things” on one shelf in the cupboard to make it easy for us to set the table together before the meal.

As I said back in September, a lot of my Jewish learning as a beginner happened as I was invited into Jewish homes to participate in Jewish routines. I really, truly want to pass it on!

What gets in the way of you inviting people into your Jewish home? And, dear readers, does anyone have a great prepare-ahead veggie main dish for summer Shabbat dinners?

Image: Barbie Beach House by DollyKnickers Some Rights Reserved.

For a Great Shabbat Table, Mix It Up!

Mix it up!
Mix it up!

Shabbat dinner last Friday evening was great. I always look forward to having students over for Shabbat evening; in that leisurely setting, with fewer people, I have a chance to really get to know them. This past week was no exception: we had five guests from the Intro class, and they were delightful.

However, I discovered a new secret ingredient, courtesy of my Hospitality Challenge. Earlier in the week, I posted a message on a local women’s listserv advertising that I had a lot of book boxes to give away. I got a message back from a woman who closed her note with “toda, thanks.” Hebrew! Wow! A fellow member of the tribe!

When she came to pick up the boxes, I blurted out, “I’ve got a bunch of students coming to Shabbat dinner this Friday night, want to come?”  She looked surprised, and then said yes.

It was a pleasure to have a different voice at the table. She grew up in Jerusalem, but has lived in the Bay Area even longer than I. My students got to meet her, and I got to know her. I have a new friend: over the table, we had time to connect. I am pretty sure, had she not needed boxes that week, we’d never have met.

So here’s my advice: mix guests you know well with guests you’ve just met. Mix old friends with new. Make impulsive invitations. Don’t worry about the perfect combination of guests – let Shabbat worry about that. The blessings have a way of bringing a table together.

For a great Shabbat table, mix it up!

Image: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by chatirygirl

Cooking Up Shabbat

Complete Shabbat Table

I’m busy getting ready for Shabbat. Tonight five of my students are coming to dinner. There’s also a guest coming whom I met during the week. I advertised on a local listserv that I had boxes to give away, and she needed boxes.  And there’s plenty of room at the table so I invited her.

Dinner is going to be simple:

  • Mac and Cheese
  • Pineapple Slaw
  • Waldorf Salad
  • Green Beans with Garlic roasted in Olive Oil
  • and Challah.

Linda’s making cookies for dessert, and I have little mandarins to go with the cookies (or instead of cookies, if someone is avoiding sugar.)

Shabbat dinner does not have to be fancy. I like to have “comfort foods” for Shabbat, myself. It is less stressful for the cook, and easy on the guests, too.

Now I have to go set the table!