Debbie Friedman, Hachnasat Orchim & Radical Hospitality

Debbie Friedman was my hero. But she got really mad whenever I tried to tell her that.

Even though she was incredibly famous and influential, she never really liked people to acknowledge it. She was humble – unless you were singing her music incorrectly, and then she would pull rank and take you to task. The music was much more important to her, than the fame.

Although my earliest in-person encounters with Debbie were the kinds of stories you tell about meeting someone famous that you admire, I was lucky enough to get to know her when she came to teach at Hebrew Union College in my last two years as a student there.

For the first few months, I watched her from a distance, still star-struck and hesitant to approach her. I didn’t feel like I could just walk up to her and strike up a conversation. Lucky for me, my friend Adam had gotten to know her after he gave a sermon that she had particularly loved. She reached out to him and invited him and his boyfriend Shalom to come to her house for Shabbos. It became a regular thing, and when I shamelessly expressed seething jealousy, Adam nabbed me an invitation.

For me, being invited to Debbie’s house was a dream come true, but for Debbie, it was really no big deal. She lived alone, and she liked to have company over. She especially liked to host on Shabbat. Even though she was an extremely private person, she would stretch her comfort zone to include others so that she would be less alone on the Sabbath. In extending an invitation, she was doing something momentous for me, even if she wouldn’t acknowledge it, and because it was such a big deal to me, I didn’t realize it at that time, but she was also doing something momentous for herself.

We are taught that the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming or inviting guests, is one of the most important values in Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Loew of Prague said, “Rising early to study Torah is the way we honor Torah, but when you welcome a guest, it is tantamount to honoring God. For when one brings a guest into their home and honors him because he was created in the image of God, then it is as if they are honoring the Divine presence, which is greater than honoring the Torah.”

The inspiration for hakhnasat orekhim goes back to our first patriarch Abraham, who would sit outside waiting for the opportunity to invite dusty wayfarers into the shade of his tent, and then run to prepare a meal of the choicest ingredients for them. Thus, our religion is full of traditions and teachings relating to inviting someone into our homes. During the Passover Seder, we invite Elijah the prophet, and we are supposed to invite those in need of a place to eat as well; Our wedding chuppot are open on all sides to symbolize our commitment to inviting others into the new home we are creating; And on Sukkot, we are supposed to invite both real and symbolic guests into our temporary dwellings.

The tradition is that for each night of Sukkot we should invite one of seven “exalted men of Israel” to take up residence in the sukkah with us. On the first day of Sukkot we are meant to say, “I invite to my meal the exalted guests, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David.” On each day, a different one of these seven is singled out, in the order in which the invitation lists them. It has also become popular in liberal circles to invite the matriarchs and other important women of Israel – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Abigail, and Esther – either paired with the men or on their own.

Each of the patriarchs traditionally invited into our sukkot represents uprootedness. Abraham left his father’s home for the land God promised, Isaac left home during a famine, Jacob fled from his brother Esau, Joseph was sold to merchants and taken to Egypt, Moses fled to Midian after killing an Egyptian, he and Aaron wandered the Sinai for forty years, and David also spent time in the wilderness,  when hiding from King Saul.

But the real people we invite into our homes on Sukkot, and at other times, need not be physically lost or wandering. At many times in our lives, we will find ourselves emotionally lost and spiritually wandering. The year that Debbie first invited me to her home, was one of the hardest years of my life. She had no idea what was happening in my life, or that her invitation would be a much needed ray of joy in a very dark time, but that’s what it was.

Let’s look to our invited matriarchs as an example. Sarah and Rachel both suffer from infertility; Rebecca’s favorite son has left home and she’s feeling the emptiness of her nest; Leah’s husband loves another woman; Miriam has spent the day caring for those who are ill and she is exhausted; Abigail is leaving one marriage for another; and Esther feels she has to hide her true identity to feel safe.

When we invite someone into our homes, we don’t really ever know what baggage they might bring with them, and we can’t know whether feeling welcomed by us will make a difference to their silent sufferings or spiritual wanderings, but in all likelihood, most often, being welcomed and being with others instead of alone, does make a difference, whether you are aware of it or not.

It is because of this power of inviting, that Maimonides admonishes us that anyone who sits comfortably with his family, within his own walls, and does not share with the poor is performing a mitzvah, not for joy but for the stomach.  The tradition of welcoming guests on Sukkot however, has, over time, given way to making a donation of funds as a substitute – opening our homes symbolically. While this is a nice idea, it distances us from meaningfully connecting with other human beings in person.

Ron Wolfson, author of The Spirituality of Welcoming, teaches about the narrative in Genesis where Abraham welcomes the three messengers who come to deliver good news. Wolfson points out that the text itself feels like it’s in a hurry, using many words relating to quickness. Abraham, runs, hastens and runs again. He rushes three times and fetches four times.

The traditional commentators have different opinions about what Abraham was doing before he saw his guests approaching. Some say he was healing after his circumcision, which the Torah recounts just prior to this exchange; some say he was reciting the morning prayers. But neither pain nor prayer prevents Abraham from jumping up and running to engage in hospitality.

Wolfson also teaches that Abraham doesn’t know anything about the strangers. “They could be wealthy donors and community big shots,” he writes, “or they could just be beggars off the street. (Abraham) has no idea they are angels…” It is from Abraham’s example that the Talmud derives the teaching: “Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Shechina, the Divine presence.”

So what do we learn from Abraham? Firstly, we shouldn’t just engage in Hachnassat Orchim, inviting people into our homes, but we should hasten to do it! We should start doing it immediately!

We also learn that it doesn’t matter whom you invite over, or whether or not you know them well or know anything about them – “just invite them over!” the Torah implores us.

Ron Wolfson calls this kind of invitation, one in which we push ourselves outside our comfort zones and invite people into our homes – even if we don’t think we have the time or energy, even if we don’t really know them very well – “radical hospitality”.

In writing about radical hospitality, Wolfson teaches that, “the spirituality of welcoming elevates both the guest and the host. (It) eases the unspoken anxiety a guest feels (while ) for the host, the act of hospitality is a gesture of spiritual generosity, uplifting the soul. It is an offering of oneself, an invitation for connection between human and human and, in that meeting, between human and God.”

This applies to us as both individuals and as a temple family. Wolfson writes, “the first step in transforming a congregation into a sacred community is to create an ambiance that overflows with the spirituality of welcoming, with radical hospitality.”

In answer to the question, “Why is hospitality so important for synagogues?” Wolfson responds: “We live in a time and culture that seems to work against the very thing we hope to create: a synagogue of relationships. Relationships begin with a since greeting – a handshake, a smile, a good word.” Furthermore, he writes, “we are in danger of losing the art of hospitality. We don’t welcome strangers anymore – we entertain at restaurants or clubs. We don’t greet people on the street, we avoid them. We don’t even answer our phones without first checking caller ID to see if it is someone we know or want to talk with.

What is happening to us?” Wolfson asks, “When we lose the art of hospitality,” he writes, “we lose a part of our souls. For kindness to others is not simply an imperative to improve the lives of those who seek welcome. The act of hospitality improves the lives of those who offer it. Welcoming, serving, and feeding others embody the value of generosity of spirit, of sharing what we have, of caring for others when they are in need.”

Some of you have heard me bemoan the size of my dining room. I use it as an excuse not to host people for Shabbat dinner. But really, the truth is, I feel overwhelmed at the thought of hosting a meal before services. It involves finding time to reach out to someone and invite them, clean my home, go grocery shopping, cook, set the table… it feels like a chore. But in light of Wolfson’s teachings, and the teachings of Jewish tradition, I am reminded that feeding other people’s bodies will feed my soul, and provide me with an opportunity to get to know them better and to share a little of myself with them in return, while ensuring that neither they nor I spend Shabbat alone, or neglect to make Shabbat dinner special because we have no one to share it with or to model for us how to do so.

The story of Abraham and the messengers reminds me that I can’t keep making excuses. I have to run toward the mitzvah – I have to do it now.

So, “Family X”, would you like to come over for Shabbat dinner sometime? (“Family X” accepts!)

There. Now, if I can do it, you can too. And I hope that you will, because all too often, people mention to me that they don’t know another person or family in the community, whose name has come up, but they never – to my knowledge – do anything about it.

There is nothing preventing us from knowing one another other than us not having attempted to do so.

Sometime tonight, or this week, please reach out to someone in our temple community, preferably someone you don’t know very well, and invite them over for a Shabbat meal or invite them to join you at a Shabbat service and go out for dinner, coffee, or drinks with you afterward.

If you know everyone who is here tonight, then go to the website, download the membership list, find a name you’re not familiar with, call them, and ask them if you can get to know them by having them over for dinner sometime, or if you could meet them here for Shabbat one week so that you can sit together and get to know one another.

We can list a million excuses why we can’t do this, but the less we know about each other, the less connection we feel to this community, which leads to a decreased desire to serve the community with our time and energy, and a decreased desire to support it financially. Eventually we no longer desire to be a part of it at all.

I pray that will not happen, and I believe that it all starts with hachnasat orchim. And chachnat orchim begins with YOU.

This week, may we invite radical hospitality into our lives and invite others into our homes; may we push ourselves to do something momentous for another, and in doing so, discover that we have done something momentous for ourselves – as individuals and as a community.

Kein Yehi Ratzon. May it be God’s Will.