There is an emanation from the heart in genuine hospitality which cannot be described, but is immediately felt and puts the stranger at once at his ease.
–Washington Irving, 1783-1859
The Torah bids us to perform the mitzvah of hakhnasat orhim, which is often narrowly translated as “welcoming guests.” Yet Jewish hospitality is about far more than planning a dinner party or having company. From a traditional perspective, we fulfill this precept by reaching out to the stranger with nowhere to go, the individual on the margins, those who are hungry, lonely or in need.
The spirituality of welcoming engenders an empathetic transcendence of self, a heightened awareness in which the sight of a newcomer reminds us of a time or place when our own unfamiliarity bred awkwardness and anxiety. Over and over the Torah commands such empathy in different situations, ending each injunction with the words “for you, too, were once strangers in the land of Egypt.”
In the context of synagogue life, it’s our responsibility to cultivate an empathetic sixth sense for those making their first tentative foray into the Jacksonville Jewish Center. For some it may be their first time in our synagogue; for others it will be their first time in a synagogue anywhere. We, who feel at home because we have walked through the door countless times, have an ethical imperative to put ourselves in the place of the individual new to the Jacksonville Jewish Center.
According to rabbinic legend, the biblical character of Job was among the most hospitable individuals imaginable, going so far as to build doors on all four sides of his house so that travelers from any direction could enter his home without detour or delay. In the end, however, Job’s generosity was deemed insufficient because of its passivity; rather than go outside to extend his invitations, he remained within the house and waited for wayfarers to enter on their own (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 7:1).
In marked contrast to Job’s example, our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah, rejected the path of inertia. They went forth from the confines of their tent and actively encouraged travelers to accept their hospitality. Taking its cue from Abraham’ behavior, tradition boldly proclaims that welcoming the stranger is an even greater mitzvah than receiving the Divine Presence! (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a).
Judaism is a religion of threshold experiences . . . which is one reason why we affix mezuzot to the doors of a Jewish home. At the Jacksonville Jewish Center, we strive always to bear in mind Abraham’s and Sarah’s paradigm of welcoming as well as the cardinal value of a truth as old as Judaism itself. Building community begins at the entrance to the tent; for it is only the warm, heartfelt embrace of the newcomer that may inspire him or her to explore the rich spiritual universe beyond the lobby.
If you have questions about our congregation, or I can help connect you to the many opportunities for spiritual enrichment here at the Center, please feel free to call or e-mail me. Whether you are a long-time resident of Jacksonville or contemplating a move to the First Coast we look forward to introducing you to our vibrant synagogue community and its diverse membership of all ages, outlooks and backgrounds. B’rukhim Ha-baim – Welcome to the family of the Jacksonville Jewish Center!
Rabbi Jonathan Lubliner