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Radical Hospitality – A Rosh Hashanah Teaching for 5778

Hachnasat orchim – hospitality, in English – is considered to be one of the most important mitzvot in Jewish life. Welcoming wayfarers, guests and strangers falls into a category of commandments known as gemilut chasadim – acts of loving-kindness. According to Jewish teaching, there is no upper limit for acts of loving kindness, no quota that one reaches after which one should desist. We are not meant to ration out our kindness and decency.

The commandment of hospitality should be self-evident. All we have to do is imagine how we would hope to be welcomed were we strangers or newcomers, and then extend ourselves to others in that way, following the directive to love your fellow human being as yourself. But of course human nature is more complicated than that, and what might be self-evident as a concept, in reality requires constant practice. For it is human nature to want to hang out with one’s friends. That is true not only in Middle School, but throughout life. It takes practice to extend ourselves to strangers, to open our hearts, our arms, our communities, and our homes. Through practice, we grow. The goal as we grow is to expand our comfort zone, wider and wider, and to welcome people into it. Perhaps the goal is even to make the entire world our “comfort zone”, so that everywhere we go we are ready to welcome others into our embrace. I would like to call this goal “radical hospitality”. I would like our synagogue community to practice it together. (And for you introverts out there, you still are entitled to your alone time!)

The mitzvah of hospitality is so central to Jewish values that the rabbis make Abraham its exemplar. In today’s Torah reading, which is drawn from Parshat Vayera in Genesis, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. This is the fulfillment of the promise Sarah and Abraham receive earlier in Vayera, when they are visited by three angels. Abraham’s hospitality in that passage becomes the object lesson in Jewish teaching for how to be welcoming.

Our tradition teaches that Abraham and Sarah’s tent flaps were open on all four sides so that they could keep an eye out in every direction for wayfarers who might need some shade and some sustenance. At the beginning of Vayera, Abraham is sitting in his entrance during the heat of the day, and YHVH appears to him in the oak grove where Abraham is camped. Just then Abraham spies three men approaching in the heat. He runs out to greet them, and beseeches them to rest and to refresh themselves. He rushes to his herd to choose a calf to slaughter, and implores Sarah to prepare a meal quickly for the visitors. The story would suffice to highlight Abraham’s hospitality, but the midrash elaborates. The midrash explains that Abraham was sitting in his tent recuperating from his circumcision, which had just occurred at age 99, and even his convalescence didn’t stop him from running to greet the travelers. The Talmud, in its charming way, elaborates on the importance of hospitality: God had come to pay a sick call on Abraham and they were speaking when Abraham spotted the three men. Abraham said to God, “Sorry to interrupt, God, but we will have to continue the conversation later – I have to take care of those wayfarers.” The Talmud concludes that even spiritual communion is not as important as this act of loving-kindness.

In the next episode of Vayera, God informs Abraham that God is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of the great sinfulness of the people who dwell there. But the Torah does not elaborate on the nature of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sins. What could they have done that was so evil as to merit their destruction? The traditional Christian understanding is that the sin of the Sodomites was sexual in nature. Even the term sodomy, meaning so-called deviant sexual behavior, was a Christian coinage first rendered in the King James English translation of the Bible.

Judaism never takes up this theme. Instead, the rabbis continue their lesson on the virtue of hospitality, and they depict Sodom and Gomorrah as the polar opposites of Abraham and Sarah in the way they that treated wayfarers coming into their city. To make their point, the rabbis weave vivid stories about both the great wealth and the extreme stinginess and coldness of the Sodomites. For example:

Our Sages taught: The people of Sodom were arrogant because of the bounty the Holy One had bestowed upon them…There was not a path in Sodom that did not have the foliage of seven trees over it, each shading the one below it…More: when a man would go to a gardener and say, “Give me a bunch of greens,” and the gardener would rinse the greens in water, he would shake down gold flakes out of the soil clinging to the roots.

So Sodom said: We live in peace and plenty – food can be got from our land, gold and silver can be mined from our land – what need have we to look after wayfarers, who come to us only to deprive us? Come, let us see to it that the duty of entertaining foot travelers is forgotten in our land…

The Sodomites erased the roads into their city, so that no wayfarer might find them. But if a traveler did happen to enter their city, no one would offer him shelter, and he would be forced to sleep outside. If a poor man needed food, each Sodomite would give him a denar with the Sodomite’s name scratched onto it, but not one of them would sell him a morsel of bread to eat. When the man died of starvation, they would retrieve their coins… Once, there was a maiden in Sodom who brought a morsel of bread concealed in her pitcher to a poor wayfarer. When three days passed and the poor man did not die, the reason for his staying alive became clear. The Sodomites smeared the maiden with honey and placed her on a rooftop, so that bees came and stung her to death.

According to the rabbis, it was this maiden’s cries that rose up to God and caused God to take note of Sodom’s evil.

Get the point? In Judaism, the measure of a society can be taken by the way its members treat the ones in their midst who need hospitality – the wayfarer, the undocumented immigrant, the poor, the dislocated, the refugee. In a righteous society, greed, mistrust and fear all must give way before the commandment to receive guests and to make sure that they are safe and secure.

It is not my place to offer a lecture on immigration policy. It is an exceedingly complex issue and I am certainly not qualified to address it, nor as a rabbi is that the message I primarily wish to convey. Rather, during this, our season of self-reflection and self-assessment, I want to ask how we, as members of this Jewish community, can better practice the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, hospitality.

Certainly we offer a warm hello and genuine interest to everyone who enters our door, or passes by our open tent flaps. I have found over the decades that we have improved at this task, and we can take a measure of pride in our efforts to be open and warm to all. And yet, it is so easy to go to sleep on this one! But if we aspire to be a kehillah kedosha, a spiritual community, and not merely an ethnic social club, we must remain awake to how we welcome all people. There is no upper limit to this holy activity. Our hospitality is truly the measure of our righteousness. I ask us to remain alert and engaged with this mitzvah. Consider yourself to be responsible for welcoming the guest and the stranger. If each of us takes responsibility, then we will soar higher and higher. May everyone who enters our community feel genuinely welcomed.

But in our uncertain age, a moment when the ethos of welcome is under attack in our nation and in many other societies around the world, I want to ask more of us. I would like us to consider reaching out beyond our lovely synagogue community, and venturing further, to extend welcome to people with whom we typically have little meaningful contact, but who might need our welcoming hand. I am calling this radical hospitality. It is a way that we can help hold together and even strengthen the fabric of kindness that keeps a society intact, that keeps us all feeling that we are in this together. It is a way that we can hold our society from descending into another Sodom.

That is why earlier this summer our Board of Directors unanimously voted for the WJC to affiliate with a new grassroots organization, the Ulster Immigrant Defense Network. The UIDN is a volunteer-driven network dedicated to assisting our undocumented immigrant neighbors in Ulster County. The WJC has just formed a task force that will be finding ways for our community to interface with and support these efforts. Anyone can join our task force – simply contact our office and we will get you connected. But one thing I have already learned is that the most important first step in this effort at radical hospitality is that we have to make friends! Each of us can do this, reaching out in friendliness to folks whose faces we know from our shops and our towns, saying hello and learning a name. Here at the WJC, we will be thinking about and planning ways to get together with some of our immigrant neighbors, and hopefully form the beginning bonds of friendship. It does not happen by itself; we will have to be proactive. But it was not long ago that we Jews were the unwelcome immigrants and refugees. With xenophobia on the rise, the time is now to extend ourselves. Do not underestimate the impact a kind and generous gesture can have for another human being.

We are planning numerous activities at the synagogue this year to help open and sensitize our welcoming spirit. Our WJC Men’s Group is hosting a series of Shabbat “lunch-and-learns” called “All of Us”. Each month a different member of our community will speak about their experience, and we are all invited to ask questions, even so-called stupid ones. Our first presenter on October 21 will be Marty Klein, who among his many talents is an author, filmmaker and musician, and is blind. In December Ellen Foreman will be hosting a film and discussion series on the theme of “The Other”. We are hosting two one-woman plays that explore themes of otherness and welcoming. And I will teach a course next spring on how Judaism treats the other and the stranger. Again, in today’s political and social climate, it feels critical that we extend ourselves in this direction.

In the Torah portion that we are about to chant, even Abraham and Sarah, the paragons of hospitality, fail to live up to their ideals. At Sarah’s insistence, they banish Hagar the Egyptian and her son Ishmael to the wilderness, and only God’s intervention saves Hagar and her son. Some Torah commentators condemn Abraham and Sarah’s action, even though it appears to be part of the Divine plan, and the Torah itself seems to indicate that there are consequences to their failure of empathy towards Hagar. For Hagar can also be read as Ha-ger, the stranger or sojourner. She is a sojourner from Egypt. And because Abraham and Sarah mistreat Hagar the Egyptian and her offspring, Abraham and Sarah’s descendants will one day become unwelcome sojourners in Egypt, where they too will be harshly treated.

I wonder if Abraham and Sarah, in their own comfort and affluence, in their own self-centered sense of fulfillment at finally having their own son, had at this moment in our Torah reading become a bit like the Sodomites, and had forgotten how to identify with the needs of the sojourner. I wonder if God recognized that only through our own experiences of hardship do we stand a chance of identifying with and understanding the suffering of others.

To understand the plight of the wayfarer, we must be able to stand in their shoes. We must practice empathy. As Jews, that empathy is woven into our identities by the collective memory of being strangers in a strange land, with no one to protect us. By telling our collective story – whether the ancient teaching tales of the Torah, or the very recent and very real stories of our own grandparents’ generation, and our parents’ generation, and even some of us in this tent today, who were seeking safe haven from deadly violence and could find none until virtually all was lost – we learn empathy for today’s refugees, searching for a place to simply live. May we reach out with generosity and love.