I look down at the text: What do you have available?
I sigh and answer obligingly. Now that most of our children don’t live at home anymore, we have bedrooms to spare.
I know that the mitzvah of inviting guests, hachnassas orchim, goes back to our forefather, Abraham: three days after his circumcision at age ninety-nine, he happily greeted weary travelers. From this I understand the importance of sacrificing our own comfort on behalf of others.
I’m working on it.
Maybe it’s because hospitality sounds too similar to “hospital.” It does not sound like fun.
But in Jewish life, it’s self-understood that hospitality is an opportunity to create a bond between Jews that can only be achieved when one Jew goes out of his way for another, no matter who that person is.
I still remember the first time I experienced someone I didn’t know doing something Jewishly nice for me. A few months after we became observant we had a baby boy, which meant a Shalom Zachor, the mostly male celebration on Friday night before the baby’s bris. I was amazed to receive a cake from someone I didn’t know whose name was “Taibke.” (I had never even heard that name before.) In the world I came from, there were only two reasons to do something nice for someone else: either that person was your friend–“friend” defined primarily as someone who reciprocates such kindness–or that person was in serious trouble.
Doing something nice for someone just because that person was Jewish would take some getting used to. And, I mean, it’s one thing to make a cake for someone you don’t know, but how about providing accommodations for an entire family you don’t know? Maybe even for longer than you thought you’d have to?
Like all mitzvos between people, hachnassas orchim does more for the one who does than the one who receives. (Abraham’s guests were angels who didn’t even have the physical need to eat.) Chassidic lore is packed with stories of Jews and their guests over the centuries. They all have pretty much the same message: the host whose kindness transcends the guest’s outwardly bad behavior receives tremendous blessings.
While I don’t presume to know anything about the heavenly realm, I do know that this message places hachnossas orchim in a totally spiritual context. It teaches me that I have no idea about the soul of any Jew other than that it is holy and a part of G-d Himself. If I do the mitzvah right, I’m not gritting my teeth while pretending to be cordial and hoping for a payback, I’m grateful for this mitzvah as an opportunity to serve G-d. And if I’m really on top of things, a less than ideal guest will elicit compassion instead of disdain.
It has taken many years, but thank G-d, I do find it easier to genuinely see the beauty of each guest. And, for me, that is enough of a reward.