The other day, as I was standing in the check out line at one of my favorite clothes stores, I noticed that the saleswoman behind the counter kept asking the next “guest” to step forward. “Guest?!” I snickered. How exactly are we your guests? Although the trend of referring to customers as guests is nothing new, I was suddenly struck by the absurdity of it all.
What kind of a host tries to sell his guest something that doesn’t look good on her? And then casually attempts to coerce her into applying for a high interest credit card she doesn’t need? Since when was it considered hospitable to only give a full refund for items returned within thirty days of purchase? And what kind of host electronically scans his guest’s bags on her way out the door?
If we actually want to learn how to treat a guest, we should just look at this week’s Torah portion, Veyeira, where Avraham Avinu (Abraham our father) epitomizes the mitzvah of hachnasis orchim (hospitality). It is said that Avraham and Sarah lived in a tent that had doorways on all four sides so that their home would be open to guests in every direction. When the parsha begins, we find Avraham waiting for visitors to welcome into his home. We see that Avraham was so committed to this mitzvah, he was sitting outside in the “heat of the day” despite the fact that he was only three days post-bris (circumcision), the most painful time of the recovery period.
Nevertheless, as soon as Avraham saw potential guests coming, “he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground.” He then invited them in, got them water to wash up with, sat them under a tree for shade, and prepared (along with Sarah’s help) a lavish meal in their honor.
Now while I’ve never been hosted by a Biblical figure in the desert, the modern day version of this mitzvah is an amazing experience in its own right. Welcoming guests is such a central part of observant Jewish life it was one of the first things I noticed and was very moved by when I started dabbling in Orthodox Judaism.
It is very common for religious Jewish families to host complete strangers for Shabbos (the Sabbath) and holidays, not only for meals, but to sleepover as well. The whole family often gets involved – the children will decorate signs to welcome the company and help their parents set up the guest room so everything’s just right. The hosts that really have this mitzvah down pat will bring out food and drinks as soon as the guests arrive. Lots more food is then served throughout the visit, and some hosts will even send their guests home with food (like a challah) or snacks for the road. (Hey, we’re Jewish, we like to eat!) Another key component of this mitzvah is walking the guests to the door as it’s not considered proper hachnasis orchim to have a guest let himself out.
There are some truly exceptional families within the Orthodox Jewish world that literally have homes with revolving doors and host people constantly. Such an extreme is not for everyone – most families do need boundaries – but a family that practices such off the chart hachnasis orchim is the Machlis family of Jerusalem. This family has 60-100 Shabbos guests (for both dinner and lunch) every single week and has been doing so for years. I had the privilege of spending a Shabbos dinner at their home several years ago when I was studying in Israel, and it was very inspiring to see a family open their home in such a way.
A true act of hachnasis orchim is done selflessly and with no strings attached. It’s giving for the sake of giving and it’s a wonderful feeling to give like that and to be given to like that. It’s actually an act of Godliness, if you think about it, as God is the ultimate Host of His universe and lets us (his guests) stay in His world, use all His stuff, and eat His food – yet he never gets anything in return.
Which is why this whole customer as “guest” business is complete and utter nonsense. Unless, maybe, I’m underestimating those stores. Maybe they really do want to give to me selflessly. Sorry. Gotta run. I’ve got some free-clothes-getting shopping to do. (Hey, a woman can dream, can’t she?)