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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The First Avinu Malkeinu? — Ta’anit 25b — #6

Our Rabbis taught: It is told of R. Eliezer that he ordained thirteen fasts upon the community, but no rain fell. In the end, as the people began to depart [the synagogue], he exclaimed: “Have you prepared graves for yourselves?” Thereupon the people sobbed loudly. Rain fell. 

It is also related of R. Eliezer that once he went before the Ark [to lead prayers] and recited the twenty-four benedictions, but his prayer was not answered. R. Akiba went down [before the Ark to lead prayers] after him and exclaimed: “Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”), we have no ruler but You; Avinu Malkeinu, for Your sake have mercy upon us!” Rain fell. The Rabbis present suspected [R. Eliezer], whereupon a bat kol (heavenly voice) was heard proclaiming: “This man [R. Akiba] was answered, not because he is greater than the other man [R. Eliezer], but because he is always forbearing and the other is not.

With Sukkot, we add to our daily prayers a petition for rain. For people living in the 21st century, we cannot avoid asking: Is prayer efficacious? In other words: do our prayers accomplish anything? Do they change the world beyond us? Do they change us?

The context for these the story about R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and R. Akiba is a discussion of what to do if drought or disaster threatens the community. The mishnah (on Ta’anit 15a) tell us that a variety of rituals were enacted, including moving prayer services out of the synagogue and into public space, adding six extra blessings to the Amidah (bringing the total to twenty-four), and this:

When they stand up to pray, they place [as prayer leader] before the ark an old man who knows the prayers well, who has children, and whose house is empty [of food], so that his heart is concentrated on his prayer…

We have two stories about R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, a tanna who lived in the first and second centuries. He was one of the five primary disciples of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, the leader of the Jewish community at the time the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. We are told in Pirke Avot 2:11 that Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai likened R. Eliezer’s mind to a plastered cistern that never loses a drop of water. It’s a beautiful image because Torah is mayim chaim, life-giving water; R. Eliezer retained all the Torah he ever learned. Rabban Yochanan also said, “If all the Sages of Israel were placed on one scale of a balance, and R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus on the other, he would outweigh them all” (PA 2:12). R. Eliezer is a gold-medal, rabbinic heavy-weight.

In the first story, R. Eliezer has taken the extraordinary step of ordaining thirteen fasts. Things must be dire. The fasting does no good, so R. Eliezer warns the people, in essence, “Do you realize that if your prayers are not sincere and heartfelt you’re going to die?” Their cries to heaven are sincere and heartfelt—they do the trick because they are sincere. The mishnah (cited above) prescribed a way to find a prayer leader whose prayers for mercy are sincere. It would seem that sincerity is a crucial ingredient for efficacious prayer. Recognizing this, R. Eliezer evokes sincere prayer from the people.

Why doesn’t God respond? It’s as if God says, “I didn’t answer because I didn’t really hear you ask.”  

In the second story, R. Eliezer leads the prayers and inserts the extra blessings to address the grave situation of the community resulting from the drought, but with not effect. R. Eliezer’s well-known arrogance may be the underlining factor: he sets himself apart from others, even his own colleagues (Baba Metzia 58-59), diluting his sincerity despite his greatness. Heaven does not respond; rain does not fall.  

R. Akiba next takes a turn leading the prayers and rather than projecting his own sincerity and compassion, he invokes God’s compassion and sincerity. He addresses God as “Avinu Malkeinu” (lit. “our father, our king”)—the first time this appellation is used. The phrase “Avinu Malkeinu” calls on God to feel the people’s pain, as parents experiences the pain of their children, and to respond to their needs, as parents respond to the needs of their children. The other rabbis present are suspicious. R. Eliezer is a wonder-worker. Perhaps he used his powers to make it rain? But no, heaven settles any doubt by declaring that R. Akiba’s prayers worked because of his character: R. Akiba is patient and forgiving.


  1. Lurking beneath the surface of these stories—and much, if not most, of Talmud—is a theology that holds that God hears prayer and can be an active agent in the world, responding to the actions of people, if God choose. Is this your theology? If not, how do you understand God? If God does not “hear” and “respond” to prayers in the traditional sense, what is the value of prayer and how might it be used in one’s spiritual life?
  2. R. Akiba is patient and forgiving. R. Eliezer, in contrast, is impatient, strict, and demanding. This seems to introduce the notion of middah k’neged  middah (measure for measure): It takes a person who is patient and forgiving to inspire and evoke that quality in God. How does our behavior toward other people influence their behavior? Can we “bring out the best” or “bring out the worst” in others by how we operate?
  3. It is possible to read these stories as a commentary on those who separate themselves from the community’s needs, concerns, sorrows, successes, and joys. The fasting did not work until the people felt the pain of others. R. Akiba’s prayer reached God because he was deeply connected with the community and inspired God to be likewise. In contrast, R. Eliezer ordained fasts and inserted prayers. Could it be that these were merely pro forma rituals for him? Do you find it difficult to pray with sincerity? What helps?

(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, September 21, 2015

Hospitality When It Really Matters — Kiddushin 81 — #5

Plimo used to say everyday, “An arrow in Satan’s eye!” Once, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Satan disguised himself as a poor man and went and called out at his door [begging for alms]. They brought out bread for him. He said, “On a day like this, when everyone is inside [eating the meal before Yom Kippur at a table], shall I be outside?” They brought him inside and brought him bread. He said, “On a day like today everyone [sits] at the table. [Should] I sit by myself?” They brought him in and sat him at the table. [As] he sat, his body suddenly became covered with boils and sores, and he behaved repulsively. He said to him, “Sit properly!” [The beggar] said to [Plimo], “Give me a cup [of wine].” They gave him a cup. He coughed and spit phlegm into it. They scolded him. He fell and [it appeared that he had] died. They heard people [in the street crying out], “Plimo has killed a man! Plimo has killed a man!” He fled and hid in a privy. Satan followed him, and fell before him. When [Satan] saw how [Plimo] was suffering, he disclosed his identity. He asked Plimo, “Why did you say this [i.e. “An arrow in Satan’s eye”]?” [Plimo asked,] “Then how should I speak?” [Satan] said to him, “Let master say, ‘May the Merciful One rebuke Satan.’”

In the first edition of Ten Minutes of Talmud, we read a passage from tractate Shabbat about hospitality. The Rabbis—at least symbolically—elevate welcoming people in importance above welcoming the Shekhinah (God’s Presence). It’s one thing to invite friends and family into our homes, feed them, and enjoy their company. It’s quite another to welcome unbidden guests, particularly when we find them repellant. In tractate Kiddushin, the Rabbis tell the story of a man named Plimo who has the opportunity to welcome a homeless man begging for alms. Try to imagine that such a person knocks on the door of your home. What do you do?

This beautifully constructed story of Plimo is found with others concerning righteous sages who boast that the yetzer ra (evil inclination) has no power of them. Here, the yetzer ra, anthropomorphized, and played by none other than Satan, the prosecutorial angel in God’s heavenly court. Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 21:10 says, “One should not give Satan an excuse.” Plimo does precisely that: he taunts Satan, daring Satan to call his bluff.

The setting is Erev Yom Kippur. Plimo and his household are assembled for the last meal before the fast begins. This is likely a hardy, if not sumptuous, meal because it has to hold them for 25 hours. Plimo and his family are preparing to spend Yom Kippur pleading with God to be merciful to them, forgive them for their sins, and inscribe them for another year of life. It’s a lovely, idyllic family scene until a knock comes on the door…

The beggar at the door is poor and desperately hungry. While the family is embarking on a voluntary (if obligatory) fast, the beggar fasts involuntarily. How does the family respond? Hoping to avoid contact with him, they bring bread outside so that they don’t have to invite him inside. The beggar, however, asks to be brought inside where everyone else is. Once inside, he points out that everyone else is permitted to eat at the table. As much as they would like to ignore him, he makes it impossible to do so. When the beggar sits down at the family's table, we are told that, “his body suddenly became covered with boils and sores.” Really? Suddenly? Or is it that no one noticed that he is not only starving, but also desperately ill. How could they have missed this? Plimo’s response is to reprimand the poor man, rather than attend to his medical needs. The juxtaposition of Plimo, who is about to plead for God’s mercy—though he smugly believes he is righteous enough not to require it—and his failure to show mercy to one truly in need is stunning and disturbing. Would a genuinely righteous person behave as Plimo has? Yet how different are all of us from Plimo?

The beggar falls and “dies.” At once, the whole neighborhood is aware of what has happened and that Plimo is at fault. How do they know? This seems to be Satan’s doing. Plimo has publicly declared his righteousness; Satan makes Plimo’s true self public knowledge. In horror, Plimo flees to the privy and locks himself in. The inconvenience that befell Plimo has turned into a disaster. Satan pursues Plimo and again “falls” before him, making it clear to us that Plimo not only failed to show compassion to the beggar, but failed to fulfill the mitzvah of attending to the dead. Satan, realizing that Plimo is suffering, now ends the masquerade by revealing himself. Ironically, Satan shows Plimo more compassion than Plimo shows the beggar. But Satan doesn’t let Plimo off the hook entirely. Satan asks Plimo why he arrogantly boasted, “An arrow in Satan’s eye.” Plimo is a good deal more humble now, and open to hearing what Satan has to say. Satan reminds Plimo that he, like all of us, is vulnerable to temptation and wrongdoing, and needs to invoke God’s help to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.


  1. Plimo is not a bad man. But neither is he impervious to the yetzer ra. What happens when people believe in their own righteousness overmuch?
  2. What suffering does Satan see in Plimo? Is it fear, embarrassment, shame? Something else?
  3. How different is Plimo from all of us? Most of us believe we are basically good and decent people yet when we encounter someone whose poverty or person repels us, what do we do?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Apologizing is Never Easy — Yoma 87a (part 3) — #4

R. Yose b. Chanina said: One who asks pardon of his neighbor needs to do so no more than three times, as [Jacob said in a message to Joseph], Please forgive the offense of your brothers, please, who treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father [Genesis 50:17]…

When R. Zeira had a complaint against someone, he would repeatedly pass by him, showing himself to him, so that [the offender] could come out to [placate] him. Rav once had a complaint against a certain butcher, who had mistreated him. When he saw that Yom Kippur was getting close, and the butcher had not come to him [to ask forgiveness], he said to himself: “I will go to him, to make it easy for him to apologize to me.” Rav Chuna ran into Rav on his way to the butcher and asked: “Where are you going?” Rav said: “To make amends with so-and-so.” Rav Chuna thought to himself: “Abba [Rav’s real name] is about to cause someone’s death.” [Rav] went and remained standing before [the butcher] while the butcher was sitting and chopping the head [of an animal]. [The butcher] looked up and saw [Rav], and said: “You are Abba! Go away! I have nothing to say to you!” While he was chopping, a bone flew off from the animal’s head, struck [the butcher’s] throat, and killed him.


Having told us how to go about doing teshuvah (repentance), we saw in TMT #3 that the Rabbis acknowledge that sometimes things happen differently than we plan, and we would be wise to take advantage of opportunities for reconciliation—however strange and “fowl”—to succeed, as R. Yirmiyahu and R. Abba wisely did.

The Rabbis understand in another way that things don’t always proceed according to a formula or plan. That is the subject of their second story. R. Yose has warned that apologies don’t always go smoothly and are not always accepted. Therefore, one needs to put a limit on apology: three sincere attempts suffice. But he goes a step further, telling us to stop after three attempts.


Rav (whose real name is Abba) scrupulously follows the Rabbis’ formula for teshuvah, but not R. Zeira’s advice. Rav has been offended by the butcher. He goes out of his way to make himself available to the butcher to apologize in time for Yom Kippur. His timing assures us that his intentions are good: he wants the butcher to be free from the sin of the offense he had caused by Yom Kippur, the “deadline” for apology, so he will be written into the Book of Life for the coming year. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men.

If the Rabbis are correct, there should be an amicable reconciliation before Yom Kippur. Yet Rav Chuna knows this will not turn out well and, indeed, it’s a disaster. The butcher is still furiously angry, unwilling to talk, and certainly not inclined to apologize! Rav’s appearance in his abattoir—which the butcher interprets as pressure to apologize—makes him even angrier. In his fury, he hacks away at the animal head he’s working on, dislodging a shard of bone that flies into his throat, killing him.

Rav followed the procedure delineated by the Rabbis. One could say that he went above and beyond the requirements by making himself available to the butcher to apologize before Yom Kippur. Yet it didn’t work—just as R. Zeira warned us. The rules and procedures provide structure and possibility, but repentance is a quintessentially human emotional interchange—it cannot always be governed by rules and procedures, and relationships cannot always be resolved within a specified time frame. We need to be flexible and sensitive and sometimes, we simply need to give it more time.

  1. R. Zeira’s advice is really a warning that if three apologies don’t work, something far deeper and darker is going on. Have you ever been in such a situation? Were you able to resolve it?
  2. Prior to this story, on the same page of Talmud, we are treated to a litany of maxims by sages speaking to the power of repentance, including this: R. Shmuel b. Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: “Great is repentance because it prolongs a person’s life.” The story of Rav and the butcher is the physical incarnation of that aphorism: In a sense, the butcher died prematurely because he did not repent. Do you believe that holding grudges affects our physical well being? Can teshuvah enhance our physical and mental health, or only our spiritual health? Are spiritual, mental, and physical health intertwined?
  3. R. Yitzhak, in the name of Rabbah b. Mari, compares God’s modus operandi with that of ordinary people (on the same page of Talmud): “If a person angers his friend, it is doubtful whether the friend can be placated or not. And even if he can be placated, it is doubtful whether he will be placated by mere words. But if a person commits a sin in secret, the Holy One of Blessing is placated by mere words…Still more, God accounts it to him as a good deed.” The Rabbis often compare our conduct with God’s. This
  4. Rabbi Yonatan said: Great is repentance, because it brings redemption nearer.reflects their understanding and compassion concerning our human limitations. At the same time, it raises the bar by encouraging us to stretch ourselves to be more godlike. How easily are you placated after someone offends or hurts you? How open to forgiving others are you?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What a Way to Get Forgiven! — Yoma 87a (part 2) — #3

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R. Abba had been wronged by R. Yirmiyahu. [R. Yirmiyahu] went and sat at the entrance to [the house of] R. Abba. As [R. Yirmiyahu’s] maid was throwing out [waste] water, some drops landed on [R. Yirmiyahu’s] head. He said: “They have made a trash heap of me.” He recited the following concerning himself: From the trash heaps, [God] raises the destitute (Psalm 113:7). R. Abba heard and came outside to greet him. He said to [R. Yirmiyahu]: Now I need to appease you, as it is written, Go humble yourself that your neighbor be superior (Proverbs 6:3).

Our lives are a web of relationships with family, neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, members of our many social circles and communities—and of course with God. The quality of our lives and our emotional well being is often a function of the health of these many relationships. When an important relationship goes awry, we feel as if our lives are off-kilter, out of balance. We’ve all been on the receiving end of hurtful words that are insulting, insensitive, even unconscionable. Sometimes they were uttered intentionally, the product of animosity or resentment. Sometimes the speaker simply didn’t realize that his or her words were like missiles entering our psyches. Words can hurt, and hurt deeply. Perhaps, as you read this, you can recall something someone said long ago that continues to cause a twinge of pain, or maybe you are aware of the echo of the former pain. On the other side of the ledger, consider the verbal missiles you have launched—whether intentional or inadvertent—that have delivered a fuselage of emotional pain. In TMT #2 we saw that R. Yitzhak want us to use the High Holy Day season with its deadline of Yom Kippur to set to right relationships that have been damaged not only by material wrongs, but also by such verbal missiles.

Teshuvah (repentance) affords us a corrective. The Rabbis give us a formula for teshuvah. Part of the magic of the High Holy Days is that it additionally provides a structure: (1) A deadline for apologizing—Yom Kippur; (2) A communal structure for apologizing—everyone’s doing at the same time; and (3) A spiritual narrative—this is sacred work. But in some cases, the structure isn’t the only solution.

Our story is a brief play in three scenes. In Scene 1, R. Yirmiyahu sets out to do what the Rabbis would have him do: He visits R. Abba to apologize for wronging him.

In Scene 2, while sitting and waiting for R. Abba to emerge from his house, R. Abba’s maid appears and dumps out waste water. This is essentially sewage, and just like in any good sitcom, as she carelessly and mindlessly dumps out her bucket, some splashes on R. Yirmiyahu, whom she somehow has not noticed. R. Yirmiyahu’s response is fascinating. In what tone of voice does he declare, “They have made a trash heap of me”? Is he angry and insulted? Is he laughing at the irony of the mishap and thinking, “Well, this is appropriate payback for what I did to R. Abba.” He chooses a verse from Psalm 113 with which to frame the experience: From the trash heaps, [God] raises the destitute, signaling that he chooses to rise from the uncomfortable, awkward, unpleasant experience without regarding it as an insult. It happened, it’s over. If initially he found humor in the incident, the verse is a clever reflection of the irony he felt. If initially he was angry about having sewage splatter on him, he has quickly “risen above” his anger; this in itself is an act of forgiveness and he is doing precisely what he came to ask R. Abba to do. In either case, it is a beautiful expression of his choice not to be offended.

In Scene 3, R. Abba finally emerges and realizes precisely what has transpired. Perhaps what has happened is the physical embodiment of what he was feeling toward R. Yirmiyahu? In any case, it somehow “evens the score.” All is forgiven as R. Abba notes that perhaps now he needs to apologize to R. Yirmiyahu.

Something unexpected, unpleasant happened here—foul water was splashed on R.  Yirmiyahu. It could have made the situation far worse. Imagine R. Yirmiyahu becoming enraged and shouting, “I come here to apologize and reconcile, but you have your maid dump sewage on me, treating me like refuse!” Instead, the opposite happens. Both rabbis want to reconcile and use the unexpected event as the means to do so.

  1. What role do you think “evening the score” had in the reconciliation of R. Abba and R. Yirmiyahu? Do you think it was necessary? Would they have managed to reconcile had the maid not come out at that moment and splashed dirty water on R. Yirmiyahu?
  2. We have no evidence that R. Yirmiyahu even apologized to R. Abba. It seems he never used the Rabbis’ formula for teshuvah. Something unexpected happened and he latched onto it as an opportunity. Has this ever happened to you? Could you respond to the situation as R. Yirmiyahu did?
  3. Whether R. Yirmiyahu’s initial reaction to being splattered with foul water was anger or laughter, the verse he quotes—Psalm 113:7—shows us that he invoked great humility, and not an inconsiderable sense of humor. Humility and humor are wonderful attributes that can carry us far in our relationships and interactions with other people. How have humility and humor served you in your life?  
Genuine humility says, “I am capable of doing much more, 
and therefore I must.” —Rabbi Eliyakim Krumbein

Monday, September 7, 2015

'Tis the Season—Repent! — Yoma 87a — #2

MISHNAH: If a person said, “I will sin and repent, and sin again and repent,” he will be given no chance to repent.  If he said, “I will sin and Yom Kippur will effect atonement,” then Yom Kippur effects no atonement…For transgressions between a person and God, Yom Kippur makes atonement, but for transgressions between two people, Yom Kippur does not atone until the one [who offended] has pacified the one [who was offended]…

GEMARA: R. Yitzhak said: Whoever offends his neighbor with words must placate him with words, as it is written: My son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, if you have struck your hands for a stranger, you are snared by the words of your mouth, [you are caught by the words of your mouth]. Do this, now, my son, and deliver yourself, seeing that you have come into the hand of your neighbor; go, humble yourself, and urge your neighbor (Proverbs 6:1-3). If he has a claim of money on you, open the palm of your hand to him [i.e. pay him back], and if not, send many friends to him. R. Chisda said: He should try to placate him through three groups of three people each, as it said, He comes before me and says: I have sinned and perverted that which was right, and it did not profit me (Job 33:27).

Judaism famously provides a structure—a scaffold—for mourning: extensive customs concerning burial and mourning and concentric temporal circles of shiva, shloshim, and the first year (yahrzeit) that help us know what to do when, what to say or not say, how to behave, how to grieve, and (on the other side) how to help. By and large, they work exceedingly well, but they don’t always work for everyone.

After seven chapters defining, describing, and discussing the complex rituals of atonement practiced in the Second Temple long ago, tractate Yoma turns to the inner spiritual and emotional life of the people who gather each year on Yom Kippur to make atonement to God. Talmud attempts to teach us how to repent and atone, but just as in the case of mourning, no single formula works for everyone. In this edition of Ten Minutes of Talmud we look at the basics; in the next two editions we look at two remarkable stories that follow the passage above, which explore repentance and atonement on a deeper human level: What happens when the halakhah doesn’t work?

First the basics. Mishnah Yoma 8:9, quoted above, is among the most oft-quoted mishnayot, especially at this time of year. It tells us two thing: (1) For repentance to actually be repentance it must be sincere. Going through the motions without meaning them is meaningless; and (2) when I sin against another person, by hurting, cheating, deceiving, or otherwise offending them, I am committing a sin against God. Once I have repented and reconciled with that person I offended, only then can I atone to God and receive God’s forgiveness. I cannot do an end run around the person I have offended by going straight to God and seeking forgiveness or trying to atone. This, alone, is a marvelous treatise on the meaning of genuine repentance and atonement.

Traditionally the 44 confessions of Al Chait are recited ten times during Yom Kippur, divided into three sets, each followed by a chorus of “For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us.” The majority of the sins enumerated are committed through speech. Yet how easy it is to downplay the significance of what we say. How often do people say, “Oh, I didn’t really mean what I said,” or “Don’t take what I say so seriously.” R. Yitzhak, aware that our mouths are ever-available and our tongues often much too quick, wants us to take what we say to others—and the effect it has on them—with the utmost seriousness because this is the most likely way we have hurt someone in the past year. He therefore places verbal wrongs we have committed on par with material damage we have done. He uses a prooftext from Proverbs that demonstrates how intertwined monetary damages and words are, elevating verbal wrongs to the legal level of monetary wrongs.

When it comes to actually monetary wrongs, R. Yitzhak says succinctly: If you owe someone money, pay them back! He spends very little time dealing with financial wrongs. He then returns to verbal wrongs, because financial wrongdoing is more easily resolved than hurt feelings: If what is between you is not monetary, but rather about words, gather people to help you make the apology. R. Chisda details the extent one should go to to placate the injured party, and it sounds pretty extreme to us: three parties of three. The sense we get is that the injured party is not easily placated; it’s going to take a great deal of effort. That is precisely the problem with hurt feelings: they are not easily assuaged. R. Yitzhak’s prooftext from Job reinforces his earlier conjoining of verbal and monetary wrongs: lo shave li/it did not profit me could well have been translated “it didn’t benefit me” or “do me any good,” but has definite financial connotations so I chose “it did not profit me.”


  1. When you consider the last year of your life, is there an incident you can recall in which you said something hurtful to someone and then attempted to claim that it wasn’t meant seriously, or that they were too sensitive? Was there a time when someone hurt your feelings and claimed that you were taking their words too seriously or being overly sensitive?
  2. Why do you think R. Chisda advises bringing other people along to affect a reconciliation? What role or influence can you imagine them having in the situation? Have you ever brought a friend along when you’ve needed to apologize to someone?
  3. Are there situations when it is particularly difficult for you to avoid saying things you’ll come to regret? Do you have a strategy—especially in those situations—for guarding what you say?

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Is Hospitality a Lost Art? — Shabbat 127a — WELCOME!

R. Yochanan said: Hospitality to wayfarers is as great as early attendance at the Bet Midrash (the House of Study), since [the mishnah] states, “To make room for guests or on account of neglect of the Bet Midrash.” R. Dimi of Nehardea said: It is greater than early attendance at the Bet Midrash because it states, “To make room for guests” and then “and on account of the neglect of the Bet Midrash.” Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name: Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Shekhinah, for it is written, And [Abraham] said, My lords, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by, etc. (Genesis 18:3). R. Eleazar said: Come and see how God is not like mortals. An inferior person cannot say to a greater person, “Wait for me until I come to you.” Concerning the Holy Blessed One, however, it is written, and he said, My lord, if I have found, etc.

Our earliest ancestors were semi-nomadic herdsmen who traveled from the land of the Tigris. For Torah, hospitality is national policy. and the Euphrates to the land of the Nile. We were often dependent upon the hospitality and good will of others. The Pharaoh who elevated Joseph and extended Egypt’s hospitality to his family was replaced by another who enslaved Israel. And so it has been throughout our history, in all the many places we have lived.

Extending hospitality is encoded in our tradition on the personal level through the model of Abraham, who welcomes wayfarers to his tent in the desert (Genesis, chapter 18), but also on the larger level of social justice played out on the national level: When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I, Adonai, am your God (Leviticus 19:33-34). The Rabbis understand the importance of hospitality on both levels. They know that true community is formed around the practice of hospitality: when we genuinely and warmly welcome people into our homes and synagogues, we form important and lasting relationships with them that have significance far beyond the immediate act of kindness we do.

We have three opinions concerning the importance of hospitality, each ramping it up a notch.
  1. R. YOCHANAN equates hospitality and Torah study in importance. That, in itself, is saying a great deal since the study of Torah is the core of the life of the Sages and the pillar that holds up the Jewish community. He justifies this by pointing out that the mishnah that this passage follows mentions hospitality and study in the same sentence.
  2. R. DIMI OF NEHARDEA goes further, asserting the superiority of hospitality over study since the same phrase in the mishnah mentions hospitality before it mentions study. Hyperbolic? Consider the next opinion.
  3. RAV YEHUDAH learned from Rav that welcoming guests into our homes is greater even than welcoming the Presence of God (the Shekhinah)! Abraham, who welcomed the three strangers into his tent, provides the illustration. How does this reflect a preference for the strangers over the Shekhinah? Rav considered the larger context of the verse: The Lord appeared to [Abraham] 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. (Genesis 18:1-3) As Rav and Rav Yehudah read the text, Abraham is having a conversation with God when the three strangers appear. Abraham turns his attention away from God to welcome the strangers—hospitality trumps even an encounter with God. This inspires R. Eleazar to observe: People do not ask those of greater status to, “Wait a second for me,” and turn their attention elsewhere. To welcome guests, in contrast, it is perfectly acceptable to put God on hold.
"The Jew is the emblem of civil and religious toleration. ‘Love the stranger and the sojourner,’ Moses commands, because you have been strangers in the land of Egypt. And this was said in those remote and savage times when the principal ambition of the races and nations consisted in crushing and enslaving one another.” — Leo Tolstoy
This is a stunning affirmation of the importance of welcoming people into our homes, synagogues, and any other place where someone is the “stranger.” The Rabbis understand that what we do on the level of our day-to-day human interactions informs and shapes our values and attitudes in other arenas, as well. Leo Tolstoy, not always consider a fan of Jews and Judaism, in an essay in 1891 entitled, “What is a Jew?” expressed the view that our obligation to welcome the stranger taught us to champion civil and religious tolerance.
“Nowadays the host does not admit you to his hearth, but has got the mason to build one for yourself somewhere in his alley, and hospitality is the art of keeping you at the greatest distance.” — Henry David Thoreau
Invite friends for shabbat this week and fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (hospitality). Don’t worry about cleaning the house or cooking up a storm; make it pot-luck or order in pizza if you don’t have time to cook. And perhaps discuss an issue related to hachnasat orchim, such as immigration. Or bring Ten Minutes of Talmud to the table. Or ask your guests whether they think that what Thoreau wrote in Walden 1854 holds true today.