Jewish Hospitality

Sukkah
Welcome to the Sukkah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At sundown tonight we begin the celebration of Sukkot, and the heart of Sukkot is the mitzvah [commandment] of hospitality.

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 SUKKOT CONNECTION – I believe that Sukkot can play a special role in bringing hospitality back to the forefront in Jewish communities. During Sukkot, we don’t entertain in our houses, we entertain in the sukkah. It might be the sukkah at synagogue, or it might be a makeshift sukkah in our yard (for more about making do without a real sukkah, see my article Sick of Synagogue). True, some people have fancy sukkahs, but even the fanciest ones look pretty ridiculous. Sukkot takes us out of our homes and into the sukkah, where we can warm up to the idea of traditional hospitality. The simplicity of the sukkah reminds us that human interaction is more important than the furniture.

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, start small: invite someone to a Sukkot picnic, or invite someone you are sure will be kind. 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 for coffee! But I challenge you (and myself!)  to use this Sukkot as a time to reach out to other Jews. And if you have a big success, come post in the comments. If it’s a disaster, yell at me in the comments!

Sukkot sameach: Happy Sukkot!

Yom Kippur and Depression

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

It happens that this year the Days of Awe align with Suicide Prevention Week.

Sometimes people think I’m exaggerating when I say that before I learned Hebrew, Yom Kippur could wreck me. The (non-Jewish) language of “sin” and “repentance” that I learned as a child sent me into a tailspin of despair.  Avinu Malkeinu [Our Father, Our King] was a fearsome image before which I cowered, a failure. A whole day of that, plus fasting, made me truly crazy.

No, I’m not exaggerating.

The years that I was in otherwise good emotional shape, I’d be OK. But I remember a couple of years when Yom Kippur coincided with a round of depression, and I shudder. Obviously I am still here, but it has sometimes been a spiritual battle.

Here are some things I have learned. I share them for the benefit of anyone who needs them this week:

PIKUACH NEFESH (pee-KOO-ach NEH-fesh) means “preservation of life.” It trumps nearly every other commandment. Do whatever you need to do to take care of your body/soul this week. If that means call someone, call someone. If that means go to the beach for your Yom Kippur “service,” do it. If that means eat, take your meds, go to a meeting, whatever, DO IT.

MEDICATION – After a long lifetime of hanging on by my very short fingernails, I finally allowed a kind doctor to write me a prescription for antidepressants.  They do not solve everything, but they have been a huge help. There is no shame to taking them, and they have saved lives. I take mine every day, and say a blessing when I do it.

THERAPY – If you can get access to therapy, it can be an enormous blessing. Find a therapist by asking people you trust for a referral. Your rabbi should be able to give you a name of someone who has helped others.  Again, there are no easy fixes, but a good therapist can help you find your way.

PRAYER – This is one of the places where traditional prayers can be powerful. My go-to prayer for navy blue days is the blessing for the soul we say in the morning prayers: Elohai neshama sheh natata bee, tehora hee – “My God, the soul you have put within me is pure.” It reminds me that the core of my soul, the core of every soul, is the Divine spark, pure and good. It reminds me that however I happen to feel, the essence of me is pure Goodness.

Why would a rabbi go online and post that she’s on medication for depression, and expects to be on it for the rest of her life? Because (1) illness, including mental illness, is nothing to be ashamed of and (2) because it is the most powerful way I can think of to say it’s OK to take care of yourself and it is OK to ask for help.

In the traditional service, there is a prayer, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who brings the dead to life.” While I think a future resurrection of the dead is a quaint medieval notion, I do take that prayer literally. Those who feel dead, who are in many ways as good as dead, can come back to life, and whenever that happens, it is a holy miracle.  That’s the blessing I say when I take my meds every morning, and whenever something happens that adds to the spark of the Divine within me.

This Yom Kippur, remember that what we call in English “The Gates of Repentance” are actually the Sha’arei Teshuvah. Teshuvah is much more than “repentance.” Teshuvah means  turning, changing course, and sometimes, coming home.

If I Can’t Fast, How Can I Observe Yom Kippur?

Hebrew
(Photo credit: Kashif John)

So you can’t fast this Yom Kippur: you are pregnant, a diabetic, you have an eating disorder, you have medications that cannot be taken without food.

Thank you for taking care of your body. That is a mitzvah, did you know? The Hebrew for it is Lishmor HaGuf, “to guard the body.” It is just as important a mitzvah as any other, including the Yom Kippur fast.

So how can you observe the holiday, if you must eat or take water? Here are some ideas:

FASTING IS NOT JUST FROM FOOD Traditionally, we refrain from several things during the 24 hours of Yom Kippur: eating & drinking, sex, anointing, washing, or wearing leather shoes. If your health dictates that you must drink and/or eat, you can still refrain from the other things. It’s just not as cool to complain about them in public.

ATTEND SERVICES The Yom Kippur services are some of the most moving of the entire year. From Kol Nidre in the evening to Neilah the following evening, the services carry us on an arc of spirituality and emotion that must be experienced to be understood. Too few Jews avail themselves of the full experience.

EAT PRECISELY What I mean by “eat precisely” is eat exactly what you are supposed to eat, no more and no less. If your doctor has given you a diet, have you ever stuck strictly to it for an entire 24 hours with no little cheats? If you are supposed to eat 5 vegetables, eat 5 vegetables. If you are supposed to leave refined sugar alone, leave it alone. If you are supposed to eat 3 balanced meals, don’t wimp out with only one or two. Following doctor’s orders exactly is a discipline, too.

USE THE DAY FOR SERIOUS REFLECTION The larger purpose of Yom Kippur is to examine our lives, individually and communally, and to seek out ways to be better Jews and better human beings. You can do this whether you fast or not.

USE THE DAY FOR PRAYER “Prayer” can take a lot of forms. If you are uncomfortable with the words in the machzor (prayer book), you have two choices: (1) you can let them float on by you and say your own prayers or (2) you can struggle with them and think about why they bug you. That’s a form of prayer, too. I wrote an article a while back on options in prayer: New to Jewish Prayer? Ten Tips for Beginners. See if anything there appeals to you.

One other thing: as a kindness to other Jews, eat or drink out of their sight. Slip out to the car for your packed lunch, or go home for meals. Don’t carry a water bottle around if you can possibly avoid it. Rachmanes [mercy] is a mitzvah, too.

Will God be Mad at Me if I Don’t Fast?

English: Lightning 1882
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I was asked if God would be mad if a person didn’t fast on Yom Kippur.

We have a mitzvah (a commandment or sacred duty) to refrain from eating or drinking from the sundown that begins Yom Kippur until the sundown that ends it. It’s a tough mitzvah. Some Jews observe this mitzvah because it is a commandment from God. Some observe it because it is a custom of the Jewish people. Some observe it because it puts them in better touch with what it feels like to be poor and hungry.

There is another mitzvah that sometimes cancels this one out. This is the mitzvah of taking care of our bodies. We have a sacred duty to care for our bodies, and if a pregnant woman, a child or a sick person (say, a diabetic) fasted it could do a lot of damage.  For those people, it is a mitzvah not to fast on Yom Kippur, but to eat exactly as prescribed by their doctor.

Let me repeat: If you are pregnant or sick or a child, it is a mitzvah to eat exactly as your doctor has told you to eat, even on Yom Kippur.

But what about the healthy person who can’t or won’t control herself for the 25 hours of the holiest day in the Jewish Year?

If you truly can’t master your urge to eat, this may be a wake up call that something is going on with the body. Talk with your doctor and get tested.  (I’m assuming here that you have access to medical care. If you don’t have access to medical care and think that something may be wrong, ask for help in finding free or low-cost medical care. It is OK to ask for help. And if you cannot find it, I am truly sorry.)

And if you won’t master your urge to eat – well, I do not think God “gets mad” at  people. I certainly do not think that you will bring down bad luck on yourself by not fasting. I think you are missing an opportunity to experience your bond with the Jewish people all over the world who are fasting, to find out just what goes on with your body when you go past hunger, to cultivate compassion for people who have no choice but to miss meals on a regular basis.

The purpose of mitzvot is to make us holy. That’s what we say in the blessing before we do a mitzvah, “Who makes us holy with mitzvot.” Fasting on Yom Kippur is an opportunity to grow in holiness, in connection to the Jewish People, and in understanding of a human situation.

Ready to give it a try in a few days? Check out Tips for Fasting on Yom Kippur!

Don’t Forget This Mitzvah!

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No matter what the holiday or special occasion, there’s an important mitzvah that should be part of our preparation. That mitzvah is tzedakah, money given for the relief of the unfortunate.

It is part of Jewish tradition to see to it that all Jews, no matter their income, are able to observe the mitzvot and enjoy the holiday. It’s also part of Jewish tradition to include non-Jewish people in our giving. My holidays always seem sweeter when I’ve remembered to perform this mitzvah.

Some options for giving tzedakah before a holiday:

— send a check to your synagogue, earmarked for the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund, or for any fund designated for assistance.  The rabbi or synagogue are required to use those funds  – you can feel secure that the funds will go to help someone.  The Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund might pay for dentures for an indigent member, or help with someone’s rent, or pay the fee for a child to go to Jewish camp who otherwise cannot go.

— go online and donate to the charity of your choice. It doesn’t have to be a Jewish organization; one of my favorites is my local Community Food Bank.  To locate the website of your nearest food bank, click here. But there are also many worthy Jewish funds; take the time to find an organization that speaks to your heart.

— Help a relative who is having money troubles. Yes, that counts as tzedakah, too. Just be sure not to hurt feelings or embarrass the recipient.

Not all needs are physical. Donations for education are tzedakah, too.

Important: The ancient rabbis emphasized that a small gift from a person who themselves were in need was just as important as a big check from a macher (big shot.) Everyone gives according to their means, so that all can enjoy the holiday. Don’t give beyond your means, though!

I hope that the upcoming holiday is sweet for you and your household!

The Hospitality Challenge: I Dare You!

Welcome
Photo credit: alborzshawn

There’s a lot of kerfluffle in the Jewish press lately over the perceived shortcomings of the synagogue. “Services are boring!” wails one writer. “Millennials can’t relate!” writes another. “How do we attract the young people?” “We’re putting too much emphasis on youth!” “Remake the bar mitzvah!” “Get rid of the bar mitzvah!” and of course, “Did you see that video on YouTube?”

Feh!

I am not a congregational rabbi. I am a member of a congregation, and I believe that congregational membership is one of the greatest deals on the planet. I learned that not from a rabbi, but from other congregants. I love the feeling of extended family. I love knowing that if my life suddenly goes up in smoke, the Caring Community will be on the job. I love going to shul and seeing my friends. But what got me there was not an official program. What got me there was other people performing a mitzvah: hachnasat orchim, hospitality.

The Snyder-Kepler family invited me to dinner. Then they invited me to holidays at their home. I met other people there, who invited me to their homes. We ate together. We did dishes together. We hung out together. Friendships were born. Kids grew up.

I am in the process of moving into a new home. I’m organizing it with two goals in mind.  First, it needs to be accessible enough that my honey and I can get old in it, and disabled friends can come to visit with dignity. Secondly, it needs to be set up like the Tent of Abraham: we are going to welcome friends and strangers (soon to be new friends) for Shabbat dinners, for lazy Shabbat afternoons, for holidays, and for study. And the house is going to be set up so that people’s children will be welcome, too.

I am a teaching rabbi, and I admit, part of it is that I need to do more of my teaching in an environment that gentler on my own disabilities. But more of it is that I know this works, because it worked on me. Our home will not be a synagogue or a substitute for a synagogue. It will be a Jewish home, hospitably open to other people.  We’ll find them at synagogue, we’ll find them in class, we’ll find them when they wander into our lives. And they will be welcome. And then we will teach them: you can do this. Invite someone over.

Linda and I are both introverts. This is going to require some stretching. That’s why I’m writing about it under the #BlogElul topic “Dare.”

Because committing to serious hospitality requires daring from my introverted soul.  I worry that I’m an awful housekeeper, I’m not a very good cook, I tend to run around barefoot at home, the dogs will misbehave, what will we do if they don’t leave? what will I do if they criticize me? what if what if what if … and it simply doesn’t matter. I’m going to give this mitzvah a go.

Because I know that it works. It worked on me.

Now: to any other Jews that are reading this: I dare YOU. When was the last time you invited another Jew over? I’m not talking to the congregational rabbis, I’m talking to the folks like me, Jews-in-the-pew.  You don’t have to commit to it as a way of life – not now – just commit to doing it once. Then again. Invite someone over for dinner and Scrabble. Or lunch and the ballgame on TV. Or gardening. Or making brownies. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you have them over. What matters is that you practice the mitzvah of hospitality. If you have a home, however humble, it’s fine.

I believe that this can transform our congregations, if enough of us do it. Because we will then not be a group of people consuming services, we will be a real community, people who have eaten together and washed dishes together, who have maybe even seen each other at not-at-our-best times. We will have compassion for one another. We will have bright ideas. We will show up.

I dare you.

This post is part of the series #BlogElul, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommers. Participants mark the passage of time during the month of Elul with social media meditations on topics connected with the High Holy Days and the month of Elul.

The Power of Love

English: An Aastra 53i VoIP handset. Photo tak...

It is taught: Rabbi Eliezer the great used to say: Why does the Torah warn in thirty six places – and some say, in forty six places – concerning the stranger? Because humanity tends towards evil. Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’?  – Bava Metzia 59b

Over and over, the Torah repeats to us a commandment concerning the stranger, that we will not mistreat the stranger, that we will be kind to the stranger, that we will in fact love the stranger. Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (“the great”), a first century rabbi, one of the greatest rabbinic minds in our history, commented upon it. He said that this commandment is repeated so often and in so many ways “because humanity tends towards evil.”

We tend towards evil especially where strangers, people not like ourselves, are concerned. The drive for survival wired our ancestors’ brains to think automatically in terms of “friend” and “enemy.” If someone is strange looking, he might be dangerous. “Better get her, before she gets me,” thinks the deepest parts of my brain, the parts that trained in scary places in the distant past, and less distant places, like high school and the business world.

Torah calls us beyond the programming we inherited from our ancient forbears.  It seems awfully risky to adopt “love” as our default approach. Our impulse to hate the stranger is embedded deep in the brain, so that it is intuitive to strike out at someone we see as a threat. It is surprising that the Torah commands it, but so it does, again and again and again.

On Aug 21, 2013, we were witnesses to a remarkable example of the wisdom of this Torah lesson. A young man walked into the Ronald McNair Discovery Learning Center in a suburb of Atlanta armed with assault weaponry and over 500 rounds of ammunition. One of the women he took hostage surely saw him as a stranger: he was white, she was black, he was armed, she was not, he felt he had nothing to lose, she feared for her life. And yet Antoinette Tuff looked at Michael Brandon Hill and she was able to see a human being, and to speak with him and to listen to him as a human being. And because she did that, no one died that day.

If you have not listened to the recording of their conversation made by the 911 operator, I recommend it. You can listen to it here: http://youtu.be/1kVpipSXRKA

I cannot imagine a higher-pressure situation than Ms. Tuff faced. But she chose to see Mr. Hill as a human being. She listened to him. She spoke to him from her heart. She did not talk down to him. Over the conversation: as he revealed the troubles that had led him to this very bad decision, she listened to him without judgment. “We all go through something in life.” She offered to walk out with him, to give himself up to the police.

She said, “We not going to hate you, baby.”

I don’t know that I could be that calm in the face of such a situation or could speak with such kindness to a man with a gun.  But I do know that’s what it sounds like to love a stranger.

What are we ordinary people to take from this? Perhaps the next time we see a stranger, we could observe our impulse to hate and fear that person, and then choose something different.  Perhaps we could choose love, and in doing so, choose life.