Hospitality is a Mitzvah

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!

Sarah’s Choices

Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky
Portrait of a Laughing Lady by Bertalan Karolvszky

Imanu Sarah: Sarah, Our Mother. Sarah was the wife of Abraham, and yet she is a mystery. The Book of Genesis has many passages that mention her:

She was the half-sister and wife of a chieftain. (Genesis 20: 11-12)

We know that she was beautiful, so beautiful that the Pharaoh of Egypt wanted her for his harem.  (Genesis 12:11)

She was sometimes cruel in her dealings with her servants. (Genesis 16)

She had a sense of humor, but laughed at the wrong moments. (Genesis 18:12)

At 90, she was still so beautiful that the king of Gerar wanted her for his harem. Twice in her life her husband handed her over as a concubine to men that he feared. (Genesis 20)

Later that year, she conceived a child by Abraham and gave birth – at age 90. (Genesis 21: 1-8)

She was fiercely protective of her son Isaac, and demanded that his half-brother Isaac and his mother, her servant, be sent out into the desert to die. (Genesis 21: 9-21) The text is unclear exactly what Ishmael was doing to Isaac, but certainly he was an older male with a claim on Abraham’s estate, and Sarah was ruthless in getting rid of him and his mother.

At some later date, Abraham believed he had been told by God to take Isaac and sacrifice him. God intervened, and Isaac lived.

We do not know what happened between Abraham and Sarah after that. In Genesis 23, the text says that Sarah died at Hebron, where she was apparently living apart from Abraham, since he had to “come” [vayavo] to mourn for her and bury her. We know from the previous chapter that he had taken other wives or concubines, and had children by them.

We know nothing about Sarah’s feelings, except for the times that she was jealous of Hagar. We know about the time she laughed at Abraham, although God covered for her and said she was laughing about herself. (Genesis 18: 12-13) We don’t know how she felt about being passed off as a “sister,” handed to two different kings as a concubine.

We know that her son mourned her for a long time. (Genesis 24:67)

All that we know, we know through a narrator who was much more interested in other people and things. But even that narrator cannot deny that Sarah’s decisions had consequences: her choices to twice play along with the fiction that she was single, to give Hagar to her husband, to banish Hagar and Ishmael, to protect Isaac. Even though she was not much more than property in the world she inhabited, Sarah’s choices had world-changing consequences.

When ever I feel that no one is listening, that I am too small to matter, I remind myself of Sarah. Every choice we make has powerful potential.

Choices have consequences, sometimes long-ranging ones. May we all make good choices this week, for we never know when it may turn out to be important.

Opening the Tent of Hospitality

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

Yossi ben Yochanon from Jerusalem said: “Let your home be open wide to the multitudes. — Pirkei Avot 1:5

I posted last night just before Shabbat that we were going to have our first Shabbat dinner in our new home. It was wonderful! Our friend Dawn came, and we blessed and talked and had a wonderful time. The food was simple but it was eaten in the glow of Shabbat candles.

Now I grant you, having one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone I call “sister” to Shabbat dinner is hardly a wild act of hospitality. Still, it set a tone: we are not going to be hermits in that house, Linda and I. We are going to have guests at the table as often as we can. Food won’t be fancy (not with my cooking!) but it will be eaten with others.

I went looking for the source of the midrash that Abraham’s tent was open on four sides, and I found this article by Rabbi Monique Susskind Goldberg. It seems that in the commentary on the mishnah above, Pirkei Avot 1:5, the talmudic commentary gives the example of Job, whose home was open on four sides to all guests. He is then compared unfavorably to Abraham, who actually ran out on the road to welcome his guests in Genesis 18. If Abraham was even more hospitable than Job, then his tent was also open on four sides, or so the reasoning goes. The point is that hospitality is a mitzvah, an key part of being a Jew.

So we’ve begun. I’m sure it will be better when we have chairs for everyone and the oven actually works!