When Midrash Comes Alive – Sukkot 5778

I’ve heard the midrash, interpretation used to explain Jewish texts or customs, at least one hundred times. It’s the one where Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all four sides to welcome travelers from all directions. In the Torah, Abraham even goes as far as to interrupt G-d at one point to welcomes three approaching strangers, who he later learns are angels, and offers them the generous hospitality of his home (Genisis 18). Abraham simply accepts them. That’s important! The rabbis and the interpretation identify this story as the derivation from which one of Judaism’s values – Hachnasat Orchim  (the virtue of welcoming strangers and offering hospitality)– was originated.

In many ways, Abraham and Sarah’s tent and actions are emblematic of, ideally, how inclusive our communities could be and how enthusiastic we should be about welcoming folks we do not know. This example is the standard to which we can hold our own hospitality and measure our intentions and actions. Ideally, every person would be welcomed in the spaces they want to reside without their identities and their “belongingness” being questioned. Although, lately I’ve recognized that so many communities are more divisive and exclusive than united and inclusive. I’ve observed this both within and across the various communities or identities with which I ascribe and align myself. However, one community I am a part of, a social justice infused Jewish community in Boston, is defying this pattern of fractured, inefficient attempts at unity and oneness. Admittedly, we have a lot of work to do, still, to make sure we are accessible to everyone who wants to share our community, but overall, we’re unique in both our efforts and our effect as it relates to welcoming everyone and being inclusive.

Perhaps I can best exemplify this statement with a story…

One recent Shabbat our community shared Shabbat services and stories. I enjoyed the brief moments of peace – which always feel like time is literally stopping – during our service. We all enjoyed the refreshingness of both the natural light and the breeze from the open windows. It was one of the first nice days in a while. The reprieve from the rain elevated our spirits and our voices. Near the end of the service, a new person in the room shared with us their appreciation. Adam said that he decided to take a detour on his way home and follow the sounds of the birds. His meandering brought him close to our house – to our ruach (energy/spirit) and kavanah (intention) – and he decided to come inside. He shared the he wasn’t Jewish but couldn’t resist exploring the beauty that he heard radiating from the house. And, he mentioned that he was so appreciative to be welcomed into our space. Adam stayed late into the night conversing and sharing more songs and energy. At the end of the night, Adam thanked us for welcoming him. He reiterated how beautiful the singing and the evening was for him, and he even said this was the best night of his life.

I can’t stop thinking about this experience. Perhaps it’s because in this space it’s so intuitive for us to welcome people, and it’s something I’ve always felt was so special about our community that I hadn’t seen as explicitly until now. Perhaps it’s because often people do not share, initially, how the feeling of being welcomed impacts them – it’s an incredible feeling. Perhaps it’s because in so many other places, this type of acceptance and irrevocable, unquestionable, immediate inclusion is just not salient or attainable for everyone. Perhaps it’s because it’s so inherently “Jewish” and the best example I’ve experienced of how to embody the values of the midrash about Abraham and Sarah’s tent and the values of Sukkot.

Themes of hospitality reoccur in Judaism throughout our rituals and texts (e.g., at Sukkot and during the Passover seder). Fundamentally, Hachnasat Orchim is a mitzvah (commandment), and therefore could even be considered an obligation of Jewish people.  Therefore, it’s undeniable that welcoming all people, welcoming guests, is a Jewish value that imperatively needs to be capitalized on.  To me, this mitzvah is more significant and relevant now more than ever! We must continue to critically evaluate our spaces both to recognize how we are impacting and including others and where we can continue to improve. Importantly, as we strive to welcome newcomers in our community let us always reflect on whether we’re opening both our doors and our hearts. 

On this Sukkot, I urge you to welcome something or someone new into spaces within which you dwell – your home and your heart.