HACHNASAT ORCHIM: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Virtue
The Torah portion, Vayera (GENESIS 18:1-22:24), is one of those wonderful sections that is simply chock full of powerful stories and lessons. It tells of how Abraham and Sarah received the news that in their old age, Sarah would finally bear a child. It tells of how, when God revealed to Abraham the Divine plan to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham actually argued with God on their behalf. It then goes on to tell of how those cities were destroyed because they did not merit Abraham’s defense of them. It tells of what happened to Lot and his daughters after their escape from Sodom. It tells of the birth of Isaac. It tells of how Sarah, fearing for Isaac’s safety, forced Abraham to send away his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, the handmaid, Hagar. It then goes on to tell of how Hagar and Ishmael almost died of thirst in the wilderness but instead, God saved them and promised to make Ishmael a great nation. It tells that most famous account – the one we read on Rosh Hashanah morning – in which God tested Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Yes, this particular Torah portion offers us much to consider, study, and discuss. It is a treasure trove of important lessons.
Tonight I wish to focus our attention on just one of the stories – one of the lessons – from our Torah portion. It is one I have yet to mention. It is the account of how Abraham and Sarah were visited by three angels, and how they received them. According to the Torah text, Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he noticed three strangers approaching. They were angels, but he did not know that at the time. As soon as he saw them, he jumped up and ran to greet them, offering them the hospitality of his home. Though he had no idea of who they were, still he bowed down before them and treated them as nobility, calling them “My lords.” He offered them a little food and then provided them with a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk.
The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash saw this story as being a very important one when it comes to Jewish life. They spoke about it extensively, and from it they derived one of Judaism’s most time honored and practiced virtues; the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – the virtue of welcoming the stranger; of offering hospitality.
The medieval commentator, Rashi, asked, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?” His answer was that he did so in order to see if any strangers were approaching so that he could welcome them as soon as possible. The Midrash goes further in saying that Abraham would pitch is tent at a crossroads and then raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see if any travelers were approaching from any direction. Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.
There is another midrash which is very telling and very powerful. It centers on the question of who was deserving of Abraham’s hospitality. According to this midrash, one of the many travelers who Abraham welcomed into his tent was an old man. This old man was happy to accept all that Abraham offered. After he had bathed, and rested, and had eaten a luscious meal, he opened his pack, took out his collection of idols, and started to pray to them. Witnessing this, Abraham was quite distressed. “What do you think you are doing?” he shouted at the old man. The old man simply replied, “I am offering my thanks to my gods for such good fortune.” “But,” Abraham stuttered and stammered in rage, “your gods did not provide this food and drink and shelter and respite for you. My God provided it and it is to my God – the One God – that you should be offering your prayers of gratitude.” “You are wrong,” replied the old man. “While I was traveling down the road, I prayed to my gods to lead me to a place were I could find food and drink and shelter and rest, and they led me here. They answered my prayers and it is to them that I should be grateful.” Well Abraham would have none of this, and in his outrage, he kicked the old man out of his tent and sent him on his way. Shortly afterwards, God called to Abraham and asked, “Where is the old man?” Abraham then shared with God what had happened as well as his anger and frustration at how, after receiving all that bounty, the old man still rejected God in favor of his idols. To this, God rebuked Abraham saying, “For all these years, I have taken care of that old man. Now you have the audacity to toss him out? If his idol worship has not bothered me, why should it bother you?” Hearing this, Abraham was greatly ashamed, and in his shame, he rushed down the road in search of the old man. When he found him, he apologized, sought his forgiveness, and he invited him to return to his tent and to his hospitality.
Why were the rabbis so fixated on this Torah story? Why were they so fixated on this matter of hospitality; of welcoming the stranger? Perhaps it was because of another statement that appears and reappears throughout the Torah, that statement being, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
The Torah is constantly concerned about the well being of the stranger, and therefore so were the rabbis. That concern is based upon the fact that of all people, we as Jews should know what it feels like, and what it means, to be a stranger. We know what it is like to be on the outside, looking in. We know what it is like to sometimes feel excluded or ignored or evenworse, and we do not like it.
If we do not like being the stranger – if we do not like being treated that way; as somehow less than others – then from our unpleasant experiences we should learn to do better and to be better when we find the tables reversed; when we are the hosts and others are the strangers. If we do not like to be made to feel unwelcome, then it is incumbent upon us to go out of our way to welcome others. And, as the midrash about the old man instructs, it should not matter whether or not we agree with those others. It should not matter whether or not they are like us or dramatically different from us. For in the end, as different as we may be, they, like us, are still God’s children and should be treated accordingly.
Our rabbis were truly wise because while they understood that this issue of how we treat strangers most certainly has societal, national, and international dimensions – it impacts such issues as how do we as Americans treat immigrants, both of the legal and illegal variety, and how do Israelis in the Jewish state treat the non-Jews residing in their midst – if we are ever to effectively address such issues properly, we must start our efforts, not so much on the big scale but rather on the small scale, the intimate scale, the personal scale. The rabbis clearly understood that if we ever want our society to be welcoming to the strangers in its midst, then we have start by building homes that are welcoming to strangers. That if we start by promoting this virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – of welcoming the stranger – on a family level then surely it eventually will take hold on a societal level.
The rabbis understood that we need to turn to Abraham as a model of personal behavior. Abraham lived a world that was not very welcoming. Twice – once in this week’s Torah portion – Abraham and Sarah found themselves in foreign lands where they were so unwelcome that if they did not conceal the fact that they were married, Abraham most likely would have been murdered by lecherous rulers. Yet, even so, Abraham decided that his world was going to be different. His home would be a place in which strangers would feel welcomed rather than afraid. Therefore, as Abraham’s home was welcoming to strangers, so should every Jewish home be welcoming to strangers. There should always be at least one seat open for guests at our Shabbat dinner table. Guests should always welcomed to the Passover Seder, even as we begin that service by stating, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Nor should we consider these seats to be reserved for people we know. Rather, when it comes to this, it is the stranger who should enjoy priority seating.
As we welcome strangers into our homes, so should we, as Jews, welcome strangers into our synagogues. When we see someone we do not know, we should feel it to be our obligation to approach that person, introduce ourselves and help them to feel at home among us. I am sure that there are among us tonight those who have found themselves in other communities on Shabbat or on holidays. There are those who, while in those communities, have gone to local synagogues. In some of those synagogues, we felt left out in the cold. We were alone, and no one even acknowledged our presence. It was as if we were not there. And after the service, we left the building feeling worse than empty; feeling somehow wounded. Then there are those who, finding themselves in a similar situation, entered synagogues in which people approached them, welcomed them, wanted to get to know them, and tried to make them feel at home. And that felt great! The point being that Hachnasat Orchim may start in our homes but should naturally flow into our synagogues.
But in the end, Hachnasat Orchim need not exclusively be a Jewish value, practiced solely in Jewish venues. As we incorporate this virtue into our lives, ideally it should become a part of our daily lives, no matter where we are and no matter who we are with. And then, hopefully, it will grow in our hearts to the point where we come to understand that our communities, our states, our nation, and even our world are but extensions of our homes, and as such should be havens in which strangers as well as natives should feel welcomed and safe.