The Shofar, Temple Beth El’s monthly publication, keeps community and temple members up to date on what’s going on. Take a look at this month’s Shofar to see what’s coming up or browse through the archives to see all that we’ve done!
Rabbi Jonathan Klein’s Reflections
From the February Shofar
Are We Welcoming?
A-DONAI 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. Let a little water be brought, bathe your feet and recline under the tree. And let me fetch you a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves; then, go on–seeing you have come your servant’s way.”… (Gen. 18, bold added for emphasis)
One welcomes guests because one honors the human who was created in the image of God, and this is considered to be a great thing, like rising early to go to the Beit Midrash which one does to honor the Torah…. Rising early to study Torah is the way we honor Torah, but when you welcome a guest, it is tantamount to honoring God. For when one brings a guest into their home and honors him because he was created in the image of God, then it is as if they are honoring the Divine presence Herself, which is greater than honoring the Torah. Know that these statements only refer to welcoming guests who are new faces to one’s home. Remember, however, that Rav said that welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the face of the Divine presence. His statement is consistent, for none can encounter the face of God directly as it is written, “No human may see My face and live.” (Exodus 32:20) So, indirect contact cannot be compared to what happens when one welcomes and honors a guest who appears as a new face and the host attaches himself completely to this image of God. So take these words in deeply…. (from the Maharal of Prague, Pathways of the World Ch. 4)
Abraham running to welcome guests into his tent is remarkable. Not only was he nearly 100 years old at the time, he had just self-circumcised! His commitment to these unknowns is the basis for our Jewish sacred obligation— hachnasat orchim — to ensure that guests are treated with utmost respect, and to serve them as the guests of honor. In the
morning prayers, we say:
These are the things that are limitless, of which a person enjoys the fruit of the world, while the principal remains in the world to come: Honoring father and mother, bestowing kindness [on others], arriving early for prayer, welcoming guests (hachnasat orchim) , visiting the sick….
Welcoming people into our midst is a cherished value, enshrined in our communal ethos. We are to go to great lengths to welcome people into our community: We are obligated to go out of our way to introduce ourselves to new faces at the synagogue; we are obligated to say hello to one another; and we are obligated to exercise great tolerance when community members are disruptive, always with an eye to protecting their dignity, even potentially compromising our wellbeing in the process. There’s the story of the guest at a rabbi’s Shabbat dinner table who spills wine by accident; in an effort to ease his embarrassment, the rabbi spills his own wine! Abraham must have been in extreme pain taking care of these strangers-turn-guests given his medical condition. To the rabbi and to Abraham and Sarah, these strangers are the indirect face of the Divine presence.
All of this begs the question: How do we, the “regulars,” who know the ins and outs of the worship service, ensure that
● Those stepping foot into the sanctuary for the first time,
● Those who have never held a Jewish prayer book,
● Those who might be genuinely curious about our traditions but scared to appear out of fear of social isolation,
How do we make sure that we not only welcome them, we also treat them, as the Maharal of Prague taught, as an “image of God?” It is a tall order, for sure, but it is our sacred obligation to the Other, seeing in newcomers an indirect manifestation of the Tzelem Elohim, Divine Image.
At TBE, we regularly have curious souls who enter our sanctuary. Some of us were once those newbies, and we were fortunate enough to have someone come up to us and really take a keen interest in our story, helping us to feel like we belong, ensuring that we were embraced to join this Kehilah Kedoshah, Sacred Community (for the regulars: Who was that in a previous generation? I would love to know, that is part of our history). Others of us might not have been so
fortunate, but because of some inner sense of obligation, we joined despite our social isolation. And then there are still others who joined us once or twice or twenty times and NEVER felt supported; they never came back. How tragic!
Several of you have shared feeling practically invisible at synagogue. Especially those exploring Judaism. Let’s face it, lots of people come once or twice but don’t return (of course some are passers-through, but not all of them). This is intolerable! Our congregation, me included—must do more to practice Hachnasat Orchim, welcoming guests, into our metaphorical tent, following the example presented to us by Abraham and Sarah. Otherwise, we disallow others from “bringing their whole selves, whoever they are.” The indirect Tzelem E-lohim, Divine Image becomes incomplete, missing those vital souls who could enrich our community, who manifest our future.
I hope that in my role as the eighth rabbi of Temple Beth El in Bakersfield, I can work with congregational leadership to institute systems (greeters other than ushers, info cards, invitations to activities, etc.) that ensure we practice more Hachnasat Orchim and ensure that every person who walks, stumbles, gallops, and darts into our community feels welcomed, blessed, at home. Ken Y’hi Ratzon , may this be our communal will!
Rabbi Jonathan Klein