Hachnasat Orchim

Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
March 9, 2012
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Growing up, my grandmother’s cooking was legendary, not just for what she created in the kitchen (especially her baked goods) but for the creative ways it was deployed. My grandfather—a farmer and cattle dealer—often brought his business associates home for dinner, in large numbers and at short notice. I would hear stories from my mother’s childhood of my grandfather calling 20 minutes before dinner, and announcing he was bringing five (or ten or twenty—the numbers did grow somewhat) extra people for dinner. Somehow, my grandmother managed: she defrosted some hot dogs, she cut a steak in half, she made the salad larger. By the time the guests arrived, no one was any wiser, and boisterous conversation could ensue over delicious food.

I didn’t grow up with tisches in the traditional sense; indeed, they’ve always seemed to me to be space that excludes me, as a woman.  They feel alienating. It has taken me a long time to see more egalitarian tisches as authentic, places of real spirituality rather than halting imitations.

Instead, what has always been very important to me was the table as a place of connection. There is always room for one more person, always a way to stretch the food to include more guests. This may explain why I keep my freezer and pantry so full, ever ready to whip out a bean salad at a moment’s notice. But I also learned from my grandfather’s willingness to welcome people into his home. He collected interesting people, and the table was where he learned about them. Meals were not just meant to be shared with those like us, and to this day, I make sure our lives include those who interest me precisely because of how different they are.

I had not seen before the quote from Chagigah 27a  in this month’s Sh’ma: Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Lakish explain: “At the time when the Temple stood, the altar used to make atonement for a person; now a person’s table makes atonement for him.” Rashi comments: “A person’s table makes atonement for him…” by means of welcoming guests to one’s table, “hachnasat orchim.” How is hachansat orchim atonement? Because atonement isn’t just about saying one is sorry; it is about envisioning that a different world and different forms of behavior are possible.

Welcoming guests is transformative to the community. We learn to trust each other by inviting each other into our homes, breaking down the walls between our public and private selves. We create future connections that sustain us in good times and bad. In an age of paranoia, we encourage ourselves to share our resources with those we do not know, with those we might not like, because we strongly believe that our homes should be places of openness.

I’ve often thought about how lucky I am that I live in a community where we all host each other for Shabbat meals. For many of us struggling to balance work and small children, if we didn’t spend Shabbat meals with together, we might never make connections with other adults that had nothing to do with our jobs. Hachnasat orchim helps us atone for a world in which our working identities threaten to overwhelm everything else we do.

But I also think that when we welcome guests, we also transform ourselves. The house gets a little neater, the food gets a little better. We extend ourselves for others in ways that we wouldn’t do if we were home alone. We are given a glimpse of what we are capable of if we weren’t usually pulled in a million directions. I think of my grandmother running around the house to get dinner for 15 new faces, never questioning the wisdom of setting more places at the table or being open to new faces. Our table becomes a taste of the world to come, when all are welcome. That, to me, is a tisch.

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Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster is the Director of Programs for T'ruah. Ordained in 2008 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she was a student activist and leader, she is a noted speaker and writer on Judaism and human rights, including speaking internationally on behalf of the U.S. State Department on the issue of human trafficking. Her writing has appeared on CNN.com, the Forward, the New York Daily News, the Huffington Post, and many other publications. Rabbi Kahn-Troster was named to the Jewish Week's 2011 "36 under 36" for her human rights activism. She serves on the board of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and lives in Teaneck, New Jersey, with her husband, Dr. Paul Pelavin, and their daughters Liora and Aliza.

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