We all have favorite mitzvot: slowing down the pace on Shabbat, building a sukkah, frolicking at Purim, studying Jewish texts, praying to God. With Rosh Hashana at hand, my New Year's resolution is to share the amazing experience we call hachnasat orchim. It means opening one's home to visitors, sometimes even to utter strangers. It frequently is marked by inviting friends and guests for Shabbat meals.
During the early years of my marriage, we hosted friends for Shabbat meals in our itsy-bitsy 11th-floor apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, and we were similarly hosted. Many of the friends slept over, and we slept at their homes, too.
In later years, with several children growing up in our Valley home, we extended invitations to families with children. Invitations would be reciprocated, and over the course of many hours and many such meals, we made friends, learned more about ourselves, and shared an expanded world of different viewpoints and experiences with our children. As the adults' conversations would linger through the afternoon, the kids would slink away from the table, pull out toys and games, and play with their guests.
When we moved to the East Valley in September 1995, we were newcomers. With certain notable and special exceptions, Shabbat meal invitations were not forthcoming. Although we were six mouths to feed, something seemed wrong with the community into which we had moved. So we just took the initiative, started inviting strangers to our home, people we did not know, to break the ice. The invitations were reciprocated, multiplied, and we had found a niche.
In October 1999, I went through the personal tragedy of a divorce. I felt personally lost, very much alone. A lady in my congregational community, Lilly Kahn-Rose, approached me one Shabbat soon after, offering to help me in some way. I responded: "Please invite me and my children for some Shabbat meals, and please help me get some Shabbat meal invitations from others in the community. I can buy cold cuts, side dishes, and challah, can recite kiddush and lead z'mirot melodies, but it is going to be so lonely and feel so minimalist in our apartment. Please help me get me some Shabbat invitations."
A week later, Lilly called me and asked me for my fax number. The fax arrived soon after -- with a list of confirmed Shabbat invitations for my children and me for every Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch for the next seven months.
Throughout those next seven months, I met a community of wonderful, warm, loving people who are rearing their own families, burdened by their own struggles and concerns, yet who rushed to open their homes to my children and me. During those seven months, I never once felt like a beggar from Jerusalem. Instead, we talked throughout the meals, about mitzvot and ideas, about Israel, about the movies, about the busway, about broccoli in Guatemala, about the stuff that goes on in families.
It made a potentially devastating period in my life not only bearable but extraordinary. I learned much Torah, even though I have some learning. I continued evolving as a person. In fact, Linda Charlin, the hostess in one family that hosted us most frequently, along with the Kahn-Roses, asked me after one Shabbat lunch whether I would be interested in meeting a friend of hers. Ellen and I married a year later, but not before three other hosts initiated suggestions to set me up with acquaintances.
So, for this Rosh Hashana, I bare a personal side of myself because, in sharing, I believe it can do some good. There are single people in your community, and Shabbat can be very lonely for singles. There are divorced and widowed people and orphans and strangers in your community. There are neighbors, some sitting next to you at temple, some dwelling down the block. Many have their own Shabbat table. Invite them anyway. Many others do not even observe the Shabbat -- invite them for the Friday night dinner and ritual.
During my 10 years as an active congregational rav, and through 30 years as a grown-up, I cannot think of a more satisfying and meaningful way in which I have shared Judaism with others, and in which others have shared Judaism with me, than through hachnasat orchim and Shabbat meals.
And to this day I still can remember those exquisite moments when I was invited as an utter stranger to share Shabbat with a family while I was on the road. Like when I got stuck in Cleveland at a Jones Day law firm conference, and an associate there invited me, an utter stranger, to share Shabbat with his wife and kids. That invitation led to a friendship that, eight years later, saw him fly in from Boston to attend my remarriage and that now has me shopping for a bar mitzvah gift for his son.
Now that I am remarried, it is time to open my doors to others once again, something Ellen never has stopped doing. I hope you will share, too, in our "favorite mitzvah."