Sen-No Rikyu was a 16th century Japanese sage, the greatest master in the art of hosting guests in the Tea House that ever lived. A disciple once asked him: “What precisely are the things that must be kept in mind at a tea gathering?”
“Make a delicious bowl of tea;
Lay the charcoal so that it heats the water;
Arrange the flowers as they are in the field;
In summer suggest coolness, in winter – warmth;
Do everything ahead of time;
Prepare for rain;
And give those with whom you find yourself every consideration.”
The disciple was dissatisfied: “That much I already know…” he said.
“Then if you can host a tea gathering,” retorted Rikyu, “without deviating from any of the rules I have just stated, I will become your disciple.”
We tend to think of hosting guests as a fairly simple thing to do….if only we have the time or energy. Rarely, I’m guessing, do most of us think of hosting guests as a command from God, the mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim—bringing guests into your home. And even more rarely, I’m guessing again, do we think of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim as a spiritual practice in the way that the Japanese Tea Ceremony is a religious discipline, a Zen Buddhist religious experience.
In fact, though, the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim is based in the Torah, and it is a spiritual discipline, one of the 613 commandments.
It’s this week’s reading, Vayera, in which Abraham and Sarah demonstrate why they are the spiritual masters of the Jewish People. How so? By the way they host their guests.
They lived in a tent, in the desert, more or less. They left their tent open on four sides. Why four sides? For a modest tent, isn’t one doorway enough, maybe two –you know—for the cross breezes? They left it open on four sides so that wayfarers in any direction could enter, and so the poor would not be troubled by having to walk around the corner to come inside.
That’s a far cry from our homes today which are built to keep strangers out. Sadly, the necessity to protect ourselves may prevent us from opening our doors to total strangers. Then again, we should ask ourselves whether we are perhaps being overcautious: Are we creating the dangers we are trying to lock out? Can we fathom the loss to ourselves of the missed experiences, the missed encounters with the personalities that now don’t come to visit us?
Despite their four open doors, Abraham and Sarah were not satisfied with letting guests wander in merely by chance. According to the midrash, Abraham goes out of his way to make sure there is no one who needs to be hosted. In this week’s parasha, he is recovering from surgery on a hot day when he goes outside to look for guests.
Are we proactive enough in inviting guests into our homes, in seeking out the opportunity to perform hachnasat orchim? Abraham is our example of going out of the way to make sure new folks in town, travelers, or community members always have a place to go, that they always have an invitation to be included.
The guests Avraham finds are dressed as typical desert Arabs, which is who Avraham thinks they are at first. Avraham himself, not his slave Eliezer, washes their feet. The hierarchy of respect and dignity at play in society at large does not enter the home with a guest—the host treats the guest with the highest honor. It’s only later that Avraham learns the guests are angels, thus exemplifying a wise saying of the Japanese Tea masters about the spirit of hospitality:
“Fight your shame. Throw out your pride and learn all you can from others. This is the basis for a successful life.”
Next Avraham offers the guests the best of all he has to eat and drink. He makes sure all is prepared as quickly as possible so as not to trouble his visitors with delay. When it comes time for the visitors to depart, Avraham escorts them down the road.
The mindset of the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim is of course to spare no expense in seeing to the welfare and comfort of your guests. But there is another side of this coin – and this is what the Masters of the Japanese Tea Ceremony sought to accomplish as well. Hospitality is an experience for the host as well as for the guest. As Rikyu said: “Though you wipe off your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the tea vessels, what’s the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?”
Through the mastery of the rules for proper performance of hospitality, we get our own life in order.
Hachansat orchim, bringing guests into your home, is one of those mitzvahs that, if you put your mind to doing it in a serious manner, will likely revolutionize how you live your whole life. You might not have to go to the extreme of calling the interior decorator to open a few more doors through your apartment walls, but you will have to reevaluate what is the sense of ‘home’ that you want to create in order to bring a guest into it.
You’ll have to come up with a way to reevaluate the worth of treating a guest to the finest restaurant in town as compared to the worth of the time and care, energy and love you invest in preparing a home-cooked meal in your guest-friendly home.
Socially, you’ll have to go out – like Avraham — to the inhospitable desert of the society all around us and search for those in need of being hosted.
But the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim does not only change us, it changes the whole world, it is firmly part of the scheme of Tikkun haOlam, perfecting the world. A guest hosted in the true spirit of hachnasat orchim – who deeply feels the care you’ve showered on her – is more likely to host others in the same way, more likely to create a home in which it will be possible to host others in like manner. Her hosting will then inspire still others because miztvah goreret mitzvah: one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. This is the way we redeem the world.
All too often we feel, or complain, that the world – with all its competition and violence and loneliness, its pollution and callousness and anonymity – is an inhospitable place. We can all change that. When will you next invite guests to your home?
May we, and our children after us, learn to carry on the great cultural legacy of welcoming guests into our homes and into our community and into our lives; may we too run to perform the critically important mitzvah of hachnasat orchim.
Rabbi Michael Schwartz