The greatest teachers of the Bible did not tell stories. They did not simply proclaim laws.
They lived what they taught. They also invited others into it.
Think of people from whom you learned. Did they just say things? Or did they live them? The most important things are not always taught. They are caught. One of those values is hospitality.
Hospitality as a Way of Life
In Hebrew, the language of the Bible, hospitality is known as Hachnasat Orchim. The phrase means “welcoming guests.” This translation does not, however, do justice to the force of the Hebrew words themselves.
Welcoming guests is not just a nice thing to do. It is not simply a display of good manners. It is not even something we do because we want to be good role models for our children or our community.
Hospitality is a way of life. And it is that brings happiness and joy.
How to Make Your Home Welcoming
This custom suggests that our concern in maintaining our home should be not be the decor inside. It is not the landscaping or architecture of the home. Our concern is that we not make it too difficult for people to visit.
That custom seems out of place today. Today, as cultural anthropologists have pointed out, we tend to spend our time in the backyard rather than front porch.
The backyard is more private, and is frequently fenced in. It does not lend itself to the casual conversation and openness of the front porch.
The Bible, however, tells us be a“front-porch people.” Rather than not turn our home into a fortress, we can turn it into an oasis, a place of conversation and kindness.
Ultimately, hospitality creates community. It builds empathy. It opens up our lives and creates the enduring that lead to happiness and satisfaction.
How Do You Practice Hospitality in Your Life?
Many heroes emerged on 9/11. The firefighters and police officers who entered the burning building and debris stand out. Their memories continue to bless and inspire us today.
Among the overlooked heroes, however, was a group hunkered down in several white tents. The tents stood by the New York City medical examiners office.
Inside them was a rotating cast of pray-ors. They recited passage from the biblical book of psalms. They were following an ancient Jewish practice of continuously reciting psalms for the deceased between the time of death and burial.
It took months for some bodies to be identified and buried, and thousands of volunteers prayed without interruption in those tents for three months!
How It Started
The practice of reciting psalms immediately after death likely began thousands of years ago as a plea for God to show mercy upon the soul of the departed and ensure they not end up in purgatory. It continues today as a way of acknowledging and expressing our emotions, and focusing the mind away from the contemplation of death.
It also acknowledges our connection with the dead, suggesting we are part of one community. The living feel a responsibility for reciting psalms on behalf of the deceased.
That certainly proved true after 9/11. The number of volunteers grew every week. The practice not only brought comfort to the mourners and their families.
This continuous prayer affected many neighbors and workers near the site. Several police officers stopped in the tent and asked for their favorite psalm to be read.
Another volunteer at the time said the praying ”gives a sense of comfort and familiarity to these unstable times.” It is, he said, “a consolation, a way of grieving, and a way of being responsible.” This volunteer summed up the way prayer adds to our well-being during times of despair.
As we remember all those who perished on 9/11, perhaps we can comfort in the words of that most familiar psalm. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me.” May God continue to be with us, and all those who remember.
In seminary, one moral dilemma seriously divided the class. The question was whether to give money to the homeless on the street in downtown Cincinnati, where the seminary was located.
This question concerned me directly, as I was also interning in Chicago and encountered several homeless people on my walk to the synagogue.
Most of the class said yes. We are not, Jewish tradition tells us, to “close our hand to an impoverished neighbor.”
The dilemma arises, however, because the neighbor referred to in the Talmud is a fellow Jew, and the tradition was shaped in a time when people lived in small villages, not major urban centers. Does the same practice apply today?
We never resolved the exact disagreement, but we did arrive at a consensus. We should try to have either a sandwich to give or a coupon for a McDonalds or other easily accessible restaurant. Why? Because those in need are fellow human beings, and each of us is created in the image of God.
What we have is not solely ours. “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,” the Bible tells us. (Psalm 24)
In other words, what we own does not ultimately belong to us. It belongs to God, and we are stewards of it for all of God’s creation.
In modern America, this approach can feel counter-cultural. If we got it, we earned it, and it’s ours to do with what we please. We think a homeless person or a beggar must have done something wrong with their life, and it’s not our problem or responsibility to fix it.
Yet, the Bible reminds us we share one earth, and were created by one God. We are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19)
Are we looking out only for ourselves? Are we looking only for those we know or who look like us? Or are we truly doing for each of God’s children what we pray they would do for us? What do you think?
On the most sacred Jewish holiday of the year–Yom Kippur–we literally imagine our own funeral. Men traditional wear a white sash that will also serve as their burial shroud. The purpose is to picture our own death in a way that helps us live more fully.
What if, however, we could not only imagine our death, but choose it. And what if that choice seemed the right and dignified thing to do. This acute question faces those suffering from terminal illness. It has entered the public spotlight in the case of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with terminal cancer who moved to Oregon so she could take advantage of the state’s death with dignity law. This law allows physicians to prescribe lethal drugs a patient can choose to take.
Amidst the enormous public attention to Brittany’s story, the religious voice has been noticeably absent. Typically strident religious voices would be amongst those to quickly condemn her choice. They were amongst the most vociferous opponents of Oregon’s law when it was implemented in 1997.
Perhaps their absence speaks to a generational shift, or at least a recognition of the complexities of the issues involved.
As a spiritual leader and son and grandson of physicians, I am torn. I believe passionately in the value of life and imperative to seek and give healing. Yet, I have seen the misery and sheer pain felt by so many in the late stages of terminal illness. I have also seen the simple comfort brought by simply having the choice–even if one does not make it–to end one’s life in such conditions.
Jewish tradition has a nuanced approach to this challenge. Thoughtful rabbis and scholars disagree. What is clear, however, is the various factors that matter in making the decision. Here are four of them:
1. Quality of Life: A Jewish legend tells of a rabbi with terminal illness. He was in great pain. Yet, so long as his students stood and prayed around his bed, however, he could not die. They served as the ancient equivalent of a ventilator.
His housekeeper saw the great pain he was in. She knew the students would never stop praying. So she took a pot and threw it out the window. The shattering sound of its land distracted the students from their prayers, and the rabbi died.
She knew, better than his own students, that the rabbi would not want to live with such pain. Her actions made her the hero of the story.
2. Personal Choice: The Talmud teaches that “Everything is foreseen, but the freedom of choice is given.” In other words, we have free will. This freedom comes with limits. We cannot destroy property or harm others, even if we may the legal right to do so.
Scholars also disagree on how much we freedom we have over own bodies. Some argue the freedom is minimal, since our bodies ultimately belong to God. Others say we are stewards of our bodies, and thus have the freedom to choose how we take care of them.
The bottom line is that no text clearly prohibits a terminal patient from hastening his or her death. We have some choice in the matter.
3. Unforeseen Consequences: The Bible is filled with small deeds leading to big consequences. Joseph’s brothers, for example, sell him to slave traders. This action ultimately results in his becoming Prime Minister of Egypt.
We don’t know all the results of all of our choices. Caution needs to accompany vision in passing laws dealing with life and death.
4. Different Opinions: An old joke says that when when two Jews argue, they express at least three opinions. Our tradition cherishes debate. So does American democracy. No group can claim it has a monopoly on moral truth.
When it comes to end of life dilemmas, views often lose their nuance and perspective. Let’s not let stridency stifle our thoughtfulness. Rather, let our disagreements enhance our empathy.
As my teacher and America’s incoming Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Rabbi David Saperstein puts it, “Good moral people can differ. But the one sin from all of our religious traditions is to close our eyes to injustice and close our ears to suffering.”