Hachnasat Orchim

Detail on synagogue in Rome - A menorah and the Ten Commandments atop the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, Italy (S. Cazon photo/Flickr.com under Creative Commons 2.0 license)
Detail on synagogue in Rome – A menorah and the Ten Commandments atop the synagogue in the Jewish ghetto in Rome, Italy (S. Cazon photo/Flickr.com under Creative Commons 2.0 license)

(St. Charles Borromeo Church, Brooklyn Heights, New York City, invited me to contribute a reading for Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, as part of its daily services for peace ahead of the Presidential inauguration. I am honored to share it with Jewish Sacred Aging here.)

Thank you for inviting me to contribute some writing to your services striving for peace at a most challenging time. Thank you, especially, for inviting my writing for Friday, as Friday ushers in the Jewish Sabbath, a true day of striking for peace, at sundown.

The common part of the Bible treasured by both Christians and Jews, especially within The Five Books of Moses, contains what has become known as “commandments.” The “Top Ten Commandments” are the most well-known and memorized. If you keep reading, finding and listing all the commandments you notice, the result will be a list of 613 do’s and don’ts, 613 commandments.

Some of these commandments are actually repeated. This is especially significant, because the Bible uses words very carefully and very sparingly.

If you look closely enough, you will see a commandment once to Honor your Father and Mother, and once to Honor your Mother and Father, for nice parity.

If you look even deeper, you will find the commandment or mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, or “Welcoming the Stranger,” a total of 36 symbolic times. It begins with Abraham sitting at the entrance of his tent, recovering from self-surgery, the first recorded G-d-commanded circumcision. With handrails for Abraham’s recovery bed not having been invented yet, Abraham jumped out of bed and rushed to the entrance of his tent when three strangers appeared, now interpreted more as angels in disguise.

Abraham offered them hospitality. Abraham focused more on the visitors than on himself.

The Talmud teaches that kindness is the highest form of wisdom.

Modern self-care teaches that focusing on others reduces the need to focus on yourself. It aids your recovery. It reduces your pain, and pain can be physiological, emotional or both.

That lesson is good, but not good enough. Why is it repeated 36 times?  That is very symbolic. In Hebrew, the number 18 is associated with the word “life.” The number 36 would be “two lives.” When we welcome strangers, they become “lives,” they become “real.”

When you continue on to the biblical teachings added by the Christians, you find similar guidance in the wisdom of Matthew and others: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me…’ (Matthew 25:35)

‘Whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me’ (Matthew 10:40).

The bottom line, for me, is oxymoronic, a term that contradicts itself. For when we welcome the stranger, the stranger is a stranger no more. What a beautiful pathway toward peace at a challenging time.

Morality was the last book published by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks of England, shipped out from his publisher in November 2020, recently, in the month that Rabbi Sacks died (Z”L, May His Memory Be For A Blessing). On page 312, Rabbi Sacks wrote, “1t’s the people not like us who make us grow.”

Welcoming strangers, and transforming strangers into friends, is a path to peace to consider at this time. It is truly a way to help each other grow.

Keyn Yihei Ratzon (Hebrew), May this be G-d’s will.


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