Image: A welcome mat, with a friendly dog sitting on it. Photo via Shutterstock.
All the world is a narrow bridge. The important thing is not to panic.
-Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav
Yesterday I wrote about being welcoming at synagogue. However, don’t stop there! The mitzvah of hospitality commands us to open our homes, as well. Before you panic, read on!
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 an issue of friendliness. 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 their guests welcome, and to see to it that guests are not embarrassed in any way. It’s good to offer food or something to drink if that is possible, but it doesn’t have to be fancy food. A box of cookies or a bowl of canned soup tastes wonderful when someone has invited you to have it in their home. The host also watches out for the emotional comfort of guests. It can be as simple as changing the subject when someone seems uncomfortable.
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 panic.” 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 share an event of some sort, or invite a person 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 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!