On Hakhnasat Orchim (Hospitality)

By JFJ UK

I grew up in New York City, which meant that I and countless other schoolchildren were as familiar with the Statue of Liberty as with our own family. For all I knew, “Lady Liberty” could have been modeled on a second cousin twice removed. Some time during grade school, I was introduced to Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus.” Her sonnet, concerning immigration, had been inscribed on a plaque at the Statue some twenty years after its original composition. One of the most well-known parts of Lazarus’ poem was set to a tune by Irving Berlin which to my young ears made for a rather dour-sounding dirge:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

The mention of “wretched refuse” sounds terribly politically incorrect by today’s standards and prompted Jerry Seinfeld, the famous American comedian to remark:

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Do we have to specify “The wretched refuse?” Why not just say, “Give us the unhappy, the sad, the slow, the ugly, the people that can’t drive, people that have trouble merging, …”

What Emma Lazarus meant, of course, was the “unfortunate.” Coming from a Portuguese Jewish family, she reflected in her poetry the Jewish value of hakhnasat orchim, hospitality or welcoming strangers—whether they are wretched, bad parkers, or anything else.

This week’s parasha is bracketed by two stories concerning Abraham, and both have to do with the Jewish value of hospitality. On the front end, we have a story that we can call “Abraham, the Host Who Left God Waiting.” Whenever one reads Jewish writings about hospitality, one cannot fail to come across this tale of Abraham and his three guests, found in Genesis 18:1-8. With typical Middle Eastern touches, Abraham bows, insists that the guests stay, tends to washing their feet (traveling with sandals and dust makes for tired, worn-out feet), and in quick order gets a meal ready. Like the servants on Downton Abbey, he also stands by ready to meet whatever needs arise. The insistence on inviting people to stay and eat a meal remains with Jews to this day.

Whenever one reads Jewish writings about hospitality, one cannot fail to come across this tale of Abraham and his three guests, found in Genesis 18:1-8.

Jewish tradition spins the biblical account in such a way as to emphasize the importance of hospitality — just to be sure we get the point. Abraham, we are to understand, was in the middle of talking with God (“the LORD appeared to Abraham”) when the guests arrived (“Abraham looked up and saw three men”). So important was it to be hospitable that Abraham, according to this interpretation, left God standing there and went to take care of his visitors: “Just a moment, God, I’ve got guests.” In reading the rest of the story, it is clear that God wasn’t really left to his own devices —the fact that Abraham saw three men explains how God appeared to Abraham (one ore more of the visitors seems to have been God himself or an angel/angels). But the alternative reading makes a point: how important hakhnasat orchim really is. We can tell God to have a seat and wait while we attend to our guests—at least according to this tradition. To put a decidedly non-Jewish spin on things, in Jewish tradition Abraham has become the “patron saint” of hospitality.

The end bracket of our parasha is found in Genesis 22:1-18, the story of Abraham offering his son Isaac as a sacrifice in obedience to God’s command. Or nearly offering him, for at the last minute God stays his hand and presents a ram as an offering in place of Isaac. This story—known in Jewish tradition as the Akedah, or “binding” of Isaac—also has to do with hospitality, at least in its aspect of giving. For as we read through the passage, Abraham never complains to God, never remonstrates, never talks back; he just does what God asks. It can be argued that God had promised Abraham a multitude of descendants through Isaac, and that therefore Abraham knew this would not be the end of the story; at one point when Isaac asks where the lamb is for the burnt offering, Abraham simply replies that God will provide a lamb. Nevertheless, the Akedah has been the subject of countless discussions every Rosh Hashanah, when it is read in the synagogue, that seek to deconstruct and reconstruct exactly what was going on. At least one thing comes to the forefront: Abraham was willing to give up his own son if that is what God was really asking. The willingness to give as Abraham did is what gives the Jewish value of hakhnasat orchim its power.

And so we have two related stories: Abraham the hospitable host, Abraham the willing giver.

Famed Jewish painter Marc Chagall painted both scenes, 1 but it is his depiction of the Akedah that is most striking. His painting, titled The Sacrifice of Isaac, features Abraham with knife raised, as Isaac is bound to the altar; the Angel of the Lord is about to stay his hand; the ram is seen caught by its horns in a bush. What is unexpected is Chagall’s montage in the upper right: Yeshua carrying the cross, the color red dripping down towards Abraham and Isaac. Chagall’s interpretation of Yeshua—whom he featured in a number of paintings—was that of a Jewish martyr. But as it turns out, the Brit Chadasha, authored almost entirely by Jews, is a very Jewish book indeed. As Abraham willingly offered his son—“your only son, whom you love,” the Bible says—we cannot help but be reminded of a passage in the Brit Chadasha which says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (Yochanan/John 3:16) And as Abraham willingly served his three guests, we read that Yeshua said—using a favorite term to refer to himself—“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now that is some example of hakhnasat orchim!

1. https://www.wikiart.org/en/marc-chagall/abraham-and-three-angels-1966; https://www.wikiart.org/en/marc-chagall/the-sacrifice-of-isaac-1966

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On Hakhnasat Orchim (Hospitality)