Sleepovers for Strangers

Patriarch Avraham sits outdoors, in front of his tent, recovering from his recent circumcision. Hashem visits with him, teaching and modeling for us the mitzvah of bikkur cholim — visiting the sick.

We are commanded to walk in Hashem’s ways, as the Talmud teaches in Sotah 14a. Hashem clothed the naked Adam and Eve, and so we too should clothe the naked and care for the needy. He comforted Yitzchak, who mourned Avraham’s passing, and therefore we should comfort mourners. He attended to the burial of Moshe on Mount Nevo, and so we should attend to the last needs of the deceased.

Avraham is in recovery mode, and yet he camps outside hoping to see wayfarers whom he can invite into his abode for something to eat; a reason to articulate an affirmation of thanks and gratitude to the one true Master of the Universe. Along come three men — messengers of Hashem, we are told by our tradition — and Avraham invites them in. But first he brings them water, inviting them to wash the sand and dust off their feet (Genesis 18:4).

Two of the three Divine messengers resume their trek and reach Sodom, their mission’s ultimate destination. There they meet Lot, the nephew of Avraham. Our tradition teaches that Lot was raised by his uncle Avraham after his own father, Haran (Genesis 11:27), died a terrible death in Nimrod’s fiery furnace. Lot invites the men into his home to spend the night, and further invites them to wash their feet in the morning (Genesis 19:2).

Although many customs and lifestyle nuances appear in the course of the Tanakh (our Bible), this business of inviting visiting strangers to wash their feet seems striking. Not only Avraham and Lot, but others in the Tanakh began their home hospitality by offering wayfarers water to wash their feet. Thus, Avraham’s Damascene servant, Eliezer, was offered water to wash his feet when he arrived at the home of Betuel, father of Rivkah, the young girl who he perceived perfect to marry Yitzchak (Genesis 24:32). We later see that when Joseph’s brothers were invited into his home, the home of the Egyptian viceroy, they promptly were given water to wash their feet (Genesis 43:24).

These are the traditions and niceties of a people who became proficient at welcoming wayfarers. The very act of inviting the traveling stranger into one’s home took on the aspect of religious observance, accompanied by ritual.

The water of foot washing is a hallmark of the house meant to welcome visitors, dining guests, even sleepovers. And we see that, in our tradition, not only is hachnasat orchim a central mitzvah — another of those acts of kindness from which one eats the fruit in this world while enjoying the principal in the world to come (Talmud, Shabbat 127a) — but it is one more defining practice of our people, and other Children of Avraham, that sets us (and, in this case, our Arab cousins) apart from much of the world.

Which brings us back to the foot washing. I imagine young Lot in my mind’s eye — Lot, the nephew, in the home of Uncle Avraham and Aunt Sarah. Guests arrive. And soon the bowl of water for foot washing was brought out.

“We have guests, and they’re sleeping over. Clean up your bedroom, get a towel and get them water to wash their feet.”

I see the same nephew growing into a man, years later. He has made some bad choices, is camped out in Sodom, married to a salty wife, with some daughters who have grown up in Sodom. It’s a bad situation, a bad spiritual place, and he is not the quality of man that Avraham is. But he’s got the foot water ready — because he grew up with the foot water. M’darft — a person simply has to have foot water ready for guests.

It passes along the family through the generations. Avraham sends Eliezer back to the land where Avraham evolved many of his early values, forbidding the servant from selecting a bride locally from among the coarse Canaanites. Eliezer finds Rivkah, is invited to spend the night, and is welcomed with the foot water. By the time of Joseph, the palace has foot water for the visiting brothers. And, even in the horrific story of the Concubine of Giv’ah, the elderly man — who unsuccessfully tries saving the wayfarers from the overnight doom that surely would have befallen them if they had camped outdoors in the town square — signals them with the foot water of hospitality (Judges 19:21).

Nu? So what about your home?

Do you host Shabbat sleepovers? Do you regularly host guests for Shabbat meals? And, if you do, are your invitations geared primarily to your own circle of friends? Or do your children see you inviting wayfarers, strangers visiting the community? Do they see you adding your name to your local synagogue’s Shabbat home hospitality list? Is yours a home open to strangers who contact your synagogue for a Shabbat meal?

Today, the symbols of hospitality more typically are the bedroom at the end of the hall, the face and bath towels, and an old blanket with pillowcases that don’t match. But that’s OK. Because if it is part of their childhood, your children will continue this wonderful tradition of hachnasat orchim when they have homes and households. They are watching you and learning. Just as you do what your parents did when you grew up. Just as Joseph. Just as Rivkah. Just as Lot. All continuing this remarkable tradition, so strangely unique in society, of housing unknown sleepovers, feeding them and footing the bill with joy.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School and rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine.