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Hospitality: A Great Mitzvah

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Abraham, the hero of this week’s Torah portion, is definitely one of the three greatest figures in the Jewish Bible.  And since he was first, the very first Jew, we could even argue that his impact on Jewish history was greater than the other two greats, Moses and David. So when a particular mitzvah is associated with Abraham we would expect it to be something very significant.

Abraham could have been remembered as the great innovator, in reaching his conclusion that there was only one God. OR as the great seeker of justice in his demand to God, that the Judge of all the earth do justice.  Or, depending on your reading of the story of the binding of Isaac, as the one willing to sacrifice that which he loved the most and which was the fulfillment of all his dreams, for the sake of God’s demand.

Instead, in Jewish tradition, Abraham is remembered as the master of hospitality. To me that seems like a bit of a come down. Hospitality isn’t such a big deal. We invite guests to our home, we welcome them politely, warmly even. Traditionally it’s something that women do, and thus by the definition of past generations, not that important. It’s nice but is it world changing?

As Chloe has pointed out in her Dvar Torah, the reward associated with hospitality in Jewish tradition has been great-fertility and continuity, the birth of a new generation and the continuation of Jewish life. We find that in our Torah portion, in the Haftarah, and even in later Jewish tradition.

In telling stories about the birth of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, in the 18th century, there is a parallel story about hospitality as well. Rabbi Eliezer the father of the Baal Shem Tov was resting on a Saturday afternoon when along came a man, who had clearly been travelling on Shabbat, which is against all of the traditional rules for this holy day. By definition that man was not a good Jew, but a sinner, even a heretic. Even so Rabbi Eliezer invited him into his home, and gave him food and drink, and honored him as a guest—and we are told was blessed with a son after many years of barrenness, a son who became a great leader of the Jewish community.

Why is it that hospitality in Jewish tradition is considered so much more than a nice thing to do? Why is it recognized as something transformative, both for the guest and for the host, something with positive implications for the future?

The first thing to recognize is that hospitality, hachnasat orchim, is about welcoming everyone, including those we don’t know, or those who seem different from us in some way. The three angels, showed themselves to Abraham, only as three passing wanderers, poor beggars. In the midrash we have many stories of Abraham inviting those who worshipped the sun or the stars or the local gods and goddesses. What is stressed is that sharing Abraham’s belief in the one God could not be a condition of hospitality.

The Midrash tells us that early on Abraham had invited one stranger to a meal. After eating Abraham invited him to join in thanking God. The man refused. “All my life I have worshipped my idols, “ he said,” and that’s been good enough for me”. Abraham grew angry and threw the man out of his tent. That night God appeared to Abraham in a dream and said, “I have put up with that man denying me for 60 years. Can’t you put up with him for a single night?” Abraham woke up and ran off into the wilderness, until he found the man, and invited him again into his tent to shelter for the night. Conditional hospitality, hospitality on the grounds that you become more like me, is not hachnasat orchim.

Today the Reform movement has adopted “audacious hospitality” as one of its goals. We are urged to be truly welcoming in all that we do. In this regard, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of our national Reform movement, tells of coming to a particular congregation to give a talk. His suitcase had been lost by the airlines, so he was a little bedraggled. The welcome he received upon entering the sanctuary was rather cold. Finally, someone noticed that he looked like the poster about the visiting speaker, and then the atmosphere changed. That is not audacious hospitality.

This weekend Congregation Shir Hadash is part of a Bay Area wide effort to be more welcoming to those Jews who have been outside the organized Jewish community. In our Jewish world today there many more Jews are outside than inside, and many of them feel that if they approached the Jewish community they would not be welcome.

Rabbi Jacobs has noted that back in 1985 Rabbi Alexander Schindler, his predecessor as head of the Reform movement, introduced the idea that  instead of closing our doors to interfaith families, we should warmly embrace these families and draw them close in all aspects of Jewish life. That has made a tremendous difference:  bringing the creativity, leadership, and service of hundreds of thousands of interfaith families who have enriched our congregational lives, while countless thousands of children are being raised with meaningful Jewish experiences and commitments. Last night we recited a special blessing here in the sanctuary for all of the non-Jewish parents helping to raise Jewish children. It was evident from the number of people who stood  that they are an important part of our community. Today there are others who still feel excluded from organized Jewish life and it is our job to follow in the footsteps of Abraham and find ways of being welcoming and inviting to them as well.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai another great in Jewish history is known for rebuilding Jewish life when the second Temple was destroyed. The Talmud brags that no person ever greeted Yohanan ben Zakkai first, it was always ben Zakkai who was first to extend his hand - to Jew and non-Jew alike.  The architect of the biggest turnaround in Jewish history knew what it was to practice audacious hospitality . And so must we. Hachnasat Orchim is not a small mitzvah in the domain of the less important members of the community, it is a transformational spiritual practice that changes all of us for the better.


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