Performing hospitality mitzvah in a COVID world

Rabbi Noah Arnow

When was the last time you had guests?  It’s been so long since we’ve had anyone over that I can’t even remember. And when someone does come into our house, even for a moment, we all suddenly put on masks: We all cover our faces, our noses, our mouths.  

COVID-19 has been crushing not only to the hospitality industry, but to the concept of hospitality itself. Hospitality just isn’t a thing anymore.  

So what are we to do with the Jewish value of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, that emerges from this week’s Torah portion? 

Abraham is sitting outside his tent when God appears, and Abraham sees three people (Genesis 18:1-2). If you saw God and three people, to whom would you pay more attention?   Perhaps surprisingly, Abraham goes and greets the people and welcomes them and serves them, seemingly ignoring God.  

The Talmud teaches based on this that welcoming guests is greater than welcoming the presence of God (Shabbat 127a).  

This perhaps hyperbolic lesson is, I think, to encourage us to be hospitable, to welcome guests. If we already have such peace that we feel like God is present in our homes, what need would there be to welcome guests?  

With COVID, we cannot do this mitzvah in the ways that we used to. And it’s worth just sitting with that loss and acknowledging it as real. The social connections forged and sustained by hospitality are a real casualty of this pandemic.  

But what was this value of hospitality really about? My sense is that this mitzvah is about more than socializing, as important as that is.  

In premodern times, when people traveled by foot or animal, human habitations were more separated and communication tools were nonexistent. If someone showed up, they needed your hospitality. And someday, you too would need hospitality. A hospitable culture helps everyone.  

What is the culture of hospitality that our world needs now? It’s not dinner parties or Shabbat meals, as much as we miss them.  

Rather, we need to reboot the culture of Abraham, of welcoming strangers, of offering radical hospitality to people we don’t know, to people who are different from us. And the locus of that hospitality may not be our homes, but rather our communities: our synagogues, our schools, our neighborhoods, our nation.  

This kind of hospitality is not literally about preparing food for someone, but rather about meeting people’s basic and secondary needs in gracious, generous and trusting ways.  

Our communities cannot really be places where God dwells until we radically welcome not only the people who are at home there, but also those who are new and on the margins.  

The fundamental pivot we all are trying to do now is to slowly stop focusing on what we cannot do and focus instead on what we can do.  

We cannot welcome people with embraces and shared meals.  But we can refocus on the work of turning strangers into guests, and guests into neighbors.  

So ask yourself: How can you make sure you fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of hospitality this week?