Yom Kippur Morning 5780: Bruchim Habaim

“My, you throw a lot of dinner parties,” said my mother’s neighbor.

My Mum was puzzled.

See, my Mum lives on the fourth floor of an apartment building, with three towers each with their own secure entrance. The neighbor did not live in the same tower. And to add to my Mother’s confusion, although my Mum is a consummate hostess, if truth be told, as she has aged, she does entertain less.

The neighbor must have seen the bewildered look on Mum’s face. She clarified: “Oh, I can see into your lounge and dining room from my window in the other tower. I’ve noticed that every Friday night, you set the table beautifully, put out flowers, light candles, and there are always guests in your home.”

My Mum laughed.

While she does occasionally have guests for Shabbat dinner, what the neighbor was seeing, was the regular family get-together, with my parents, brother, sister-in-law, my sister-in-law’s father and my nephew. In my Mother’s mind these were not dinner parties, but rather, part of the rhythm of her Jewish life.

Our tradition innately has built times for family and guests to come together. Shabbat and Yom Tov meals populate our year. Brises, Baby Namings, Bnai Mitzvah celebrations, Weddings, Shiva gatherings, are the feasts that punctuate our lives.

The hospitable nature of Jewish life began in Abraham’s tent. Abraham is recovering from an intimate surgery, his own Bris. Sitting at his tent, all four tent flaps pinned high in the heat of the day, even at this painful moment, he is looking for guests to host.

Then out of the desert, appear three strangers. Abraham, we are taught, gets up and runs out to greet them, begs them to stay, washes their feet and offers them shade under a tree. He behests Sarah to grind grain and make bread, he selects a calf for slaughter, and asks a servant to prepare it, then serving the meal with curds and milk.[i]

Now, I do not share this to whet your appetite on Yom Kippur!

But rather, to show the extent of effort, which Abraham undertook in order to “welcome the stranger” – the Mitzvah known as Hachnasat Orchim.

I bet you at your Pesach Seder have reiterated Rabbi Huna’s famous statement about welcoming the stranger: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”[ii]  As Jews we are encouraged to imitate Abraham with a culture of welcome.

But what does it mean to welcome someone?

Our English dictionaries define this as: “greeting someone cordially”. It is a societal constructed norm of behavior. You may have been in situations where welcoming was the right thing. Not doing so, would have reflected badly upon your character.

You may have owed an invitation to someone you were not close to and felt a sense of polite obligation to reciprocate.  Perhaps you felt obliged to invite a family member who has said bitter words to a wedding. Or even here at synagogue, you may have encountered someone who did you wrong, and the obligatory “Shabbat Shalom” was still in order.

The cordial welcome is part of our Western civility.

In Hebrew, the words used for welcome are “Bruchim Habaim”. Literally: Blessed are those who Come.

Contrast the idea of greeting someone cordially, with the concept of blessing the moment.

When a bride enters the room to greet her groom we sing: “Baruch Haba b’shem Adonai; B’rachnuchem MiBeit Adonai” – Blessed are you who comes in the name of God. May you be blessed in the house of God.

Reciprocal blessings are offered. The bride entering brings blessing in the name of God. In turn the room, offers blessings to the bride in the House of God.

On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke about my first Shabbat in my gap year in Jerusalem and how I made my way to my family’s Kibbutz. But it was not possible every Shabbat to make that bus trip.

Then, as now, it was the custom of students to go down to the Western Wall prior to Shabbat. There, a Shaliach was assigned to seek out those who did not have a Shabbat meal and to match them with a traditionally observant family.

For the students, having somewhere to eat and celebrate was a blessing. After all, what sort of meal could you put together in a non-existent kitchen in a dorm room? And for the host families, being able to share their love of Orthodox tradition and their Shabbat feast, was a blessing, as it provided validation for their way of life.

The mitzvah, the blessing, of Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming the stranger exemplifies tangibly the concept that “All Israel is responsible for one another.”[iii]

It is not a custom relegated just to our homes.  It is also embodied by traditional behavior in our public spaces. The practice of reciting Kiddush on Shabbat eve in the synagogue arose, in order to accommodate visitors to your town or city of shtetlach, who otherwise might not have an opportunity to bless and drink Shabbat wine. And we are nearing the festival of Sukkot, when we are commanded to erect a Sukkah in our home. For those who cannot, it became the tradition to build a communal Sukkah at the Synagogue.

Still apparently for a wide array of folk, our synagogue is a place of trepidation rather than a place of welcome. They walk in and feel unnoticed, not represented, scared by ritual they feel they should know, or the lack of welcome and ceremony that acknowledges who they really are….

A colleague asked his rabbinic friends, who they thought felt excluded from our synagogues. The answers were an astoundingly long list:

Jews of color; Jews of different ethnicities, singles, the disabled. Those on the other side of the political spectrum, empty nesters, poor Jews, working- class Jews, blue-collar Jews, non-Ashkenazi Jews. Those with chronic pain, adoptees, the developmentally different, women, the intermarried, the adopted, those who did not believe in God. People in the military, introverts, people that wrestle with trauma, dual-faith families. Hearing impaired, special need kids, alcoholics, those in recovery, pregnant teens, the imprisoned, those never-married, LGBTQI Jews.  And the list went on and on…

After reading such a catalog, it was startling to think that anyone comes to services and Shul activities at all!

For Jewish communities to be spiritually welcoming we must be open to every blessing that all people bring to us and be willingly to share our blessings with them.

Recently I read an article about a woman with a high powered career, little sleep and “rising star energy”. To keep up with her reputation, she consumed legally-prescribed drugs and kept telling herself that because the doctor gave her the pills, she was fine.

Until she wasn’t. Wake up call: a friend’s overdose.

She realized that her problem was not just pills, but that her workaholic lifestyle left her isolated from meaningful interactions with others. She recognized that her life “… was constant human interaction, but with every single one of those interactions feeling empty and transactional…. There was no place to be real or vulnerable or anything that others wanted her to be.”

Her discovery?… “the opposite of addiction is genuine, meaningful interactions and authentic connections and experiences with our selves, each other, and the world around us.”

If you have been part of Alcoholics Anonymous,  or Weight Watchers, or a Grief Group, you probably already know, that it is not just the program, but how powerful and meaningful those real and honest interactions can be for yourself, with people that begin as strangers, and become intimates, that brings efficacy to such support groups.

We as Jewish institutions, even when we pride ourselves on being welcoming, can always do better in our connectivity to the other. We must look, in everything we do, to create moments of deep interactions that lead us to create profound connections and authentic relationships. To embody and promote blessings of connection.

Abraham’s tent, open on all sides, was always ready to welcome family, visitors and strangers – whoever they were. Welcoming family and known visitors, is something so many of us are accustomed to. Reaching out to strangers is a little harder.

Yet that is the point of “all Israel being responsible for one another”. We need to stretch ourselves beyond welcome, of the obligation of greeting someone cordially, to creating moments of Bruchim HaBaim, of blessing for us and for others including the stranger.

At the end of services this morning, make this real – reach out to someone you do not know as well as you would like, and find a time to get to know each other better in the coming year.

Make Shabbat dinner plans together.

Arrange to see a movie.

Invite them to your Simcha.

Meet them for Brunch and bring them along to an Adult Ed class.

Take a drawing class together.  

Attend the game.

Find some way to become a blessing for each other.

Begin with one other person. Then choose another. Consciously make such an outreach, part of the rhythm of your Jewish life at home, and the relationships we create here at Bet Aviv.

Let us be connected, deeply, to each another. Let us run out to greet the travelling angels in life and bring them into the tents of our spiritual lives: our homes and this synagogue Bet Aviv. Blessed are You as You come in, Blessed are we by your presence.

Ken Yehi Ratzon. Let this be our will.

[i] Genesis 18

[ii] Taanit 20b

[iii] Shevuot 39a

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