Adonai appeared to him by the terebinths of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot. Looking up, he saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, "My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves…"
Parashat Vayeira brings us one of our most important Jewish stories of kindness to strangers. The concept of hospitality, also called hachnasat orchim (literally the "bringing in of strangers"), being extended to others is a central value of Judaism. An act of g'milut chasadim (loving kindness), hachnasat orchim is considered a mitzvah, or commandment.
In Parashat Vayeira, we learn about our patriarch Abraham, whose kindness to guests was exemplary. Abraham kept the sides of his tent open so that he could watch for the arrival of guests. On this particular occasion, Abraham was in his tent recovering from his circumcision. However, when he saw the strangers coming, he swiftly ran to offer the very best that he and Sarah could offer. The welcome he and Sarah provided included providing the guests water for washing their feet and bidding them to rest in the shade. The guests were also served a leisurely feast that consisted of cakes of fine meal and tender calf. Abraham was such a gracious host that when they left, he began "…walking with them to send them off." Genesis 18:16
Abraham and Sarah went to extraordinary lengths to make their guests feel welcome. Both he and his wife Sarah worked very hard to ensure that their guests, though strangers, were comfortable, safe, attended to and sated. They made this their priority and spared nothing in this endeavor.
Modeling more than the standard level of courtesy, Abraham taught ensuing generations the true meaning of hospitality. He didn't just fulfill this commandment, he did it enthusiastically and whole heartedly, fully embracing the joyful mitzvah of hachnasat orchim.
The Jewish calendar is full of opportunities for you and your children to perform hachnasat orchim, to embrace others in warmth and hospitality and enthusiasm. Here are a few examples:
- Invite guests to celebrate Shabbat dinner with you.
- Build a sukkah for Sukkot in which you share a meal with invited guests.
- Seek out college students in your community and invite them to your Passover seder.
In addition to holiday times, the concept of hachnasat orchim can be extended to every day of the year. Here are some ways in which you can practice this important mitzvah:
- Encourage your children to regularly participate in play dates at your house.
- Encourage them to accept invitations when they are invited to play at other children's homes.
- When you've invited guests to your home, encourage your children to speak with them before they run off to play.
- When you have houseguests for an overnight visit, encourage your children to participate in making your guests feel comfortable. They can set the table for dinner, they can help bake cookies for dessert, etc.
- When you are invited to someone's house for a meal, model for and explain to your children the importance of bringing a small gift as a way of showing your appreciation.
- Offer to volunteer at a local soup kitchen or women's shelter-while your children might not volunteer with you, they will surely benefit by seeing you give of yourself to your community
- Seek out a family that has just joined your synagogue or is new to your community, and invite them over for a meal this week. Involve your children in the planning and organizing and execution of this mitzvah. Let them help you decide what food to serve. Ask them to make place cards for the table. Encourage them to help you with some of the cooking. By doing so, you will not only help them perform the mitzvah right alongside you, you will also give them the opportunity to experience the inner glow that helping others can provide.
These examples involve some sort of action: planning, cooking, decorating, serving and ultimately demonstrating a genuine concern for and care about others. Everyone loves being welcomed and made to feel special and comfortable in a strange place. In doing for others, we are doing what we would like to have done for ourselves. Be positive and enthusiastic, and watch your children exhibit the same behavior. As you demonstrate graciousness and kindness to others, your children will be learning to do the same.
Questions and Ideas for Parents:
- What are some of the specific things you do when you have guests come over?
- Can you think of a time in your own life when you have been made to feel welcome by others?
- What are the benefits you reap by extending hospitality to others?
Questions for Children:
- When you invite another child to your house for a play date, is it important to meet them at the door when they arrive? Why?
- If a new child joins your class at school, what can you do to help him/her feel welcome?
- How do you feel when friends come over and play with your toys?
Pages 122–148 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.