Every contemporary Middle Eastern culture I know anything about places a high value on being a good host, and what I’ve read of the Torah suggests to me that this has always been so. In Genesis we have the story of Abraham feeding the three strangers who show up without warning, and in Exodus there’s the character of Jethro, who before inventing the seed drill and flute-rock shows up as Moses’s benevolent host early in the story and honoured guest later. In chapter 2 he is the stranger who gives Moses a place to stay safely out of reach of Pharaoh’s overseers, and in chapter 18, having heard about the escape from slavery, he comes and pays Moses a visit. In exchange for having hosted Moses a long time ago, he gets two rewards. The first is to be welcomed as one of the Israelites:
Exodus XVIII:12 “And Jethro, Moses’ father in law, took a burnt offering and sacrifices for God: and Aaron came, and all the elders of Israel, to eat bread with Moses’ father in law before God.”
It’s not expanded upon, but this strikes me as a pretty big deal. He’s not just fed and given shelter, but actively invited to take part in his hosts’ rituals, which he does. His second reward is not so much bestowed by Moses as by whoever wrote the Torah, in that he, rather than God himself, a priest or an angel, gets to be the voice who introduces the giving of the law:
Exodus XVIII:15-20 “And Moses said unto his father in law, Because the people come unto me to enquire of God: When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws. And Moses’ father in law said unto him, The thing that thou doest is not good. Thou wilt surely wear away, both thou, and this people that is with thee: for this thing is too heavy for thee; thou art not able to perform it thyself alone. Hearken now unto my voice, I will give thee counsel, and God shall be with thee: Be thou for the people to God-ward, that thou mayest bring the causes unto God: And thou shalt teach them ordinances and laws, and shalt shew them the way wherein they must walk, and the work that they must do.”
It’s significant because so much of the rest of the Torah is devoted to enumerating laws that it’s clearly a primary function of the whole document, and yet it’s a foreign commoner who suggests to Moses that this be so. And not only is he a foreigner, he actually chooses not to join the Israelites; the final verse of this chapter simply says:
Exodus XVIII:27 “And Moses let his father in law depart; and he went his way into his own land.”
I find that a rather lovely bit of teaching by example. Not only is it incumbent on us to be gracious hosts and to welcome outsiders into our community, but we also have to accept that they may choose not to stay. There’s no offence in this, and it doesn’t even preclude the guest from being greatly honoured or their stay from having been a great honour to the host.
This is on my mind right now for a couple of reasons. One is that I had lunch at Hillel yesterday, where I was made to feel very welcome. I’ve made no effort to connect with a Jewish community anywhere I’ve lived since leaving my parents house, and that’s partly because I didn’t feel at all welcome at the synagogue where I had my barmitzva. I always had the sense that I just wasn’t going to be pure enough for them; a sense that was only confirmed when the Rabbi threatened to not carry out the barmitzva if we didn’t undertake to prevent any guests from driving to the service. My dad quite rightly told the Rabbi that it was a religious obligation to perform a barmitzva for anyone who was interested, and ultimately the Rabbi relented, but having to convince him to perform one of his basic duties for us was a very powerful way of telling me this community didn’t want me. I don’t know if I’ll ever be all that involved in the Jewish community here, but it feels really good to be shedding that particular piece of baggage.
The other is that I’ve recently become a “community host” at Hub Seattle, the coworking space where I spend most of my work time. This means that once a week (on Thursdays, so today) I sit at the front desk and my main job is to greet newcomers, make them feel welcome and introduce them to people. I’m very conscious that a space like this can be great for long-timers without being anywhere near welcoming enough to new people, and this feels like a great way to put my values into practice and help us get it right.