All Who Are Hungry: Creating Collective Consciousness of the Stranger

(This essay appears in Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada by Dr. Erica Brown.)

On the night of the Seder, everyone is a king. Everyone is a free person. Thus, everyone is entitled to experience freedom deeply. For the poor, the problem standing between himself and the re-enactment of freedom this night is only what money can buy. We use tzedaka to make sure that this obstacle does not stand in the way.

As an illustration of this equalizing power, we turn to Emma Lazarus (1849–1887). Her family had settled in the United States in America’s colonial days. She wrote a poem whose lines would be immortalized in bronze on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, placed there in 1903. She donated the sonnet to an auction to raise funds for the statue’s pedestal and was herself an advocate for immigrant rights. “The New Colossus” compares the Statue of Liberty to the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, the largest statue in the ancient world, built to celebrate the Greek victory over Cyprus and once considered among the Seven Wonders of the World.  “The New Colossus” commemorated something else, not the collapse of the strong under the more powerful, but the welcoming of the weak and the vulnerable into the sheltering arms of freedom.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus Poem | by StatueLibertyNPS Emma Lazarus Poem | by StatueLibrtyNPS (flicker)

It is as if Lazarus herself had invited us through her golden door and into her dining room to participate at the family Seder. And she points to the feeling that the inviter must create for the invited to feel welcome. The poem offers us an embrace; but for some, having guests is an obligation, preceded by a chilly offer that alienates even as it includes. Lazarus’s lamp, like Abraham’s position at the threshold, represents ways to seek out the stranger rather than reactively attend to his needs when he appears. The lowlier the tempest-tost immigrant, the more home matters, Lazarus suggests. The most vulnerable often become aware of their alienation only after they have been welcomed somewhere. The intake of kindness makes them aware of how truly hungry they were for warmth, for any crumb of kindness. A friend shared with me that she invited a family with a handicapped son for a Shabbat meal, and the woman broke into tears, she was so grateful. She told the hostess that such offers of company came so infrequently that they precipitated joyful weeping.

If we were to take a page out of Abraham’s playbook on hosting, we might turn to certain rabbinic laws and customs that emerged as a result of a close reading of Genesis 18. As noted above, the host should offer the portions because the host will always be most generous. We should accompany our guests four cubits from the door (about 6 feet) to show them we are not anxious for them to leave. But most of all, we should be mindful of the rabbinic dictum, inspired by Abraham’s narrative, that puts us in the mindset of a good host: “Be happy as you sit at your table and the hungry are enjoying your hospitality” (Derekh Eretz Zuta 9). We should experience joy when we open our tables to others. Professor Daniel Sperber in his series Minhagei Yisrael (Customs of Israel) mentions a kabbalistic practice reported by the medieval scholar Rabbenu Baĥya ben Asher: those who invested a great deal in hosting the poor and the stranger were buried in coffins made out of their tables as a positive judgment on how they welcomed people to their homes. Your table judges you, and you will leave a legacy based on its availability to the stranger.

Moving from ancient wisdom to contemporary practice, we turn for guidance on making guests feel welcome to New York restaurant entrepreneur Danny Meyer in Setting the Table:

Hospitality is the foundation of my business philosophy. Virtually nothing else is as important as how one is made to feel in any business transaction. Hospitality exists when you believe the other person is on your side. The converse is just as true. Hospitality is present when something happens for you. It is absent when something happens to you. These two simple prepositions – for and to – express it all.

Hospitality is measured not by what we are served, but by how we are served, by whether we feel that someone is doing something for us rather than to us. Meyer looks for warmth, enthusiasm, good listening skills, and excellent follow-up in employee hires and evaluates his employees accordingly. Strong interactive skills and emotional intelligence are critical in terms of the atmosphere he tries to create in every eating venue. He aims for what he calls legendary hospitality, the kind of service that makes people remember and talk. He also makes an important distinction between hospitality and service:

Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes its recipient feel. Service is a monologue – we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality, on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guest’s side requires listening to that person with every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top.

You might read this and think it’s good advice for a business but not really for a private home. There is truth to this. Yet when people make hospitality their business, best practices surface. Imagine that every time we invited guests we aimed for legendary hospitality. Imagine that we set that standard for our institutions, our schools, synagogues, community centers. And think about the messages we could take away and apply in our own homes. We are not yet close enough to that goal.

These hosting behaviors can not only change and deepen our relationships with others, they also model the kind of behavior we should expect in families. In How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household, Blu Greenberg writes that Hakhnasat orĥim [welcoming guests] is a wonderful mitzva for children: a) it is a concrete model from which to learn the art of sharing; b) children have an opportunity to become acquainted with all different kinds of people, including non-Jews; c) it reminds them, periodically, that they are not the center of the universe.

That reminder needs to be made more than periodically to help children acknowledge and embrace others.

(This essay appears in Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada by Dr. Erica Brown.)

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