One Minute Torah: Vayera 5779

Our Parshah this week, highlights the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim – bringing in guests.

Ditta’s family moved last year from Israel to Silicon Valley. They are living in a small but cozy house, with the luxury of an extra bedroom. Their son is attending a local private school.

The Bay Area has a problem holding on to school teachers, Ditta soon learned. Most can’t afford to live here. When Ditta’s son’s teacher left her position mid-year, the school managed to attract a new teacher all the way from Sonoma, on the condition that they could find her mid-week housing in the area. The teacher planned to spend weekends back home in Sonoma. When Ditta learned of the situation, she didn’t hesitate. She offered up her guest room.

Several months later, Ditta and her family feel good about being able to share their home. But there are times when they wish the house were a bit bigger, especially because their house guest brings a big dog with her. So Ditta sent an email around to the school community, looking for another family too share the responsibility. The teacher was open to the idea of switching between two homes, and Ditta knows many of her son’s classmates live in houses much bigger than theirs. No one stepped forward to help.

Ditta shared the story with me last week, and I found her perspective on it fascinating. She sees in her story evidence of a broad cultural difference between the middle east and America. She told me of a recent conversation with a Turkish friend, who seemed to be exactly on her wavelength. “Middle easterners,” the friend said, “love to open up their homes. We take pleasure in feeding and hosting each other. But Americans have stronger boundaries. They are very hesitant to allow outsiders into their private space.”

For years, our religious school’s second grade curriculum has highlighted the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim – bringing in guests. Our Parshah this week, VaYera, tells the story of Abraham sitting outside in the heat of the day, recovering from his recent circumcision, when three strangers approach from the desert. He rushes to greet them, invites them in, washes their feet, and he and Sarah serve them a meal. From this story comes the rabbinic tradition that Abraham and Sarah’s tent was open on all four sides to guests; that the open shape of a chupah suggests to a newly wed couple that their home, too, should be a place of welcome. Natalya Martyushova, our second grade teacher, uses the story of Abraham and Sarah’s tent to explore with her students what it means to be gracious hosts.

I told Ditta that we have many examples in our CBJ community of extraordinary hospitality. Our members open their homes for events, for meals, and sometimes for long term guests – as Ditta and her family did. But, I had to admit that her description of American boundaries also felt true. My experience living in Israel is that people there were much quicker to open their doors and to share their tables. Hachnasat Orchim is in their bones. For us, living in a culture that celebrates individuality and independence, we need to work to inculcate the value of hospitality in our children and in ourselves.