November 19, 2018

A Mitzvah Resolution

We all have favorite mitzvot: slowing down the pace on Shabbat, building a sukkah, frolicking at Purim, studying Jewish texts, praying to God. With Rosh Hashana at hand, my New Year’s resolution is to share the amazing experience we call hachnasat orchim. It means opening one’s home to visitors, sometimes even to utter strangers. It frequently is marked by inviting friends and guests for Shabbat meals.

During the early years of my marriage, we hosted friends for Shabbat meals in our itsy-bitsy 11th-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and we were similarly hosted. Many of the friends slept over, and we slept at their homes, too.

In later years, with several children growing up in our Valley home, we extended invitations to families with children. Invitations would be reciprocated, and over the course of many hours and many such meals, we made friends, learned more about ourselves, and shared an expanded world of different viewpoints and experiences with our children. As the adults’ conversations would linger through the afternoon, the kids would slink away from the table, pull out toys and games, and play with their guests.

When we moved to the East Valley in September 1995, we were newcomers. With certain notable and special exceptions, Shabbat meal invitations were not forthcoming. Although we were six mouths to feed, something seemed wrong with the community into which we had moved. So we just took the initiative, started inviting strangers to our home, people we did not know, to break the ice. The invitations were reciprocated, multiplied, and we had found a niche.

In October 1999, I went through the personal tragedy of a divorce. I felt personally lost, very much alone. A lady in my congregational community, Lilly Kahn-Rose, approached me one Shabbat soon after, offering to help me in some way. I responded: "Please invite me and my children for some Shabbat meals, and please help me get some Shabbat meal invitations from others in the community. I can buy cold cuts, side dishes, and challah, can recite kiddush and lead z’mirot melodies, but it is going to be so lonely and feel so minimalist in our apartment. Please help me get me some Shabbat invitations."

A week later, Lilly called me and asked me for my fax number. The fax arrived soon after — with a list of confirmed Shabbat invitations for my children and me for every Friday night dinner and Shabbat lunch for the next seven months.

Throughout those next seven months, I met a community of wonderful, warm, loving people who are rearing their own families, burdened by their own struggles and concerns, yet who rushed to open their homes to my children and me. During those seven months, I never once felt like a beggar from Jerusalem. Instead, we talked throughout the meals, about mitzvot and ideas, about Israel, about the movies, about the busway, about broccoli in Guatemala, about the stuff that goes on in families.

It made a potentially devastating period in my life not only bearable but extraordinary. I learned much Torah, even though I have some learning. I continued evolving as a person. In fact, Linda Charlin, the hostess in one family that hosted us most frequently, along with the Kahn-Roses, asked me after one Shabbat lunch whether I would be interested in meeting a friend of hers. Ellen and I married a year later, but not before three other hosts initiated suggestions to set me up with acquaintances.

So, for this Rosh Hashana, I bare a personal side of myself because, in sharing, I believe it can do some good. There are single people in your community, and Shabbat can be very lonely for singles. There are divorced and widowed people and orphans and strangers in your community. There are neighbors, some sitting next to you at temple, some dwelling down the block. Many have their own Shabbat table. Invite them anyway. Many others do not even observe the Shabbat — invite them for the Friday night dinner and ritual.

During my 10 years as an active congregational rav, and through 30 years as a grown-up, I cannot think of a more satisfying and meaningful way in which I have shared Judaism with others, and in which others have shared Judaism with me, than through hachnasat orchim and Shabbat meals.

And to this day I still can remember those exquisite moments when I was invited as an utter stranger to share Shabbat with a family while I was on the road. Like when I got stuck in Cleveland at a Jones Day law firm conference, and an associate there invited me, an utter stranger, to share Shabbat with his wife and kids. That invitation led to a friendship that, eight years later, saw him fly in from Boston to attend my remarriage and that now has me shopping for a bar mitzvah gift for his son.

Now that I am remarried, it is time to open my doors to others once again, something Ellen never has stopped doing. I hope you will share, too, in our "favorite mitzvah."

In Abraham’s Shoes; and Julie’s, Too

Isaac submits without struggle to the twisted leather straps that bind him. He is a helpless partner in this odd dance of death. Abraham reaches for the knife to slit his son’s throat when mercifully, an angel calls out to stop the slaughter. A ram is to die instead of the boy.

For years now, like most Jews, I have wrestled with this Torah portion about Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac. Why did the rabbis command us to hear it on Rosh Hashanah, the second holiest day of the year? Then, I came across another story that made it clear. It’s the story of Julie Maude Miller’s son Sean. She tells it this way:

“We had been living in the house we built near Idaho’s Snake River Canyon for eight years when Sean, our 14-year-old son, died of cancer on the tapestry sofa upstairs in the family room. We were granted that one small grace — to allow him to slip away from us where he always wanted to be, in the home that was his sanctuary and ours, witness to our joys and tragedy. I am proud Sean didn’t have to spend his last days in a sterile hospital room hooked up to tubes and machines. Instead, he lived on the sofa, whose fabric he wore thin while he was ill, planted in front of the VCR and television.

“At home, everything was peaceful and familiar to Sean: the window he looked out of every day, the open stairway that allowed him to hear everything going on downstairs when he was too weak to navigate the steps, the wall of windows across through which there were frequent deer sightings — usually when they were ravaging our shrubs in winter, but the deer were welcome to the shrubs because they distracted our little boy.

“I look at the kitchen table — the first time we returned from the hospital we were all traumatized by Sean’s diagnosis. His 16-year-old brother, Tyler, stayed home from school the next day to play with Sean. When Sean’s cancer metastasized for the last time, the boys played cards at the same table the day before Tyler went off to basic training at the Air Force Academy.

“Tyler carefully hid behind a mask of quiet strength the fear that he would never again see his brother alive. Sean held on, but when Tyler returned six weeks later, it was just two days before the end. Sean wasn’t strong enough to play cards downstairs, but he did manage to walk into the bedroom nearest to his tapestry sofa, to play one last card game, this time on the computer. My husband and daughter and I lay on the bunk beds and watched, all of us together in that tight space. I would never have thought that watching my boys play cards could be so inexpressibly heartwarming.

“The bunk beds are still in the boys’ room. If I concentrate I can relive climbing the ladder to the top bunk where Sean used to sleep before he got sick. After his illness, he was afraid of being alone at night and Haley, our littlest one, was suffering from this first threat to her predictable, loving world, so we clustered futons around our small double bed so the children could sleep in our room. We were grateful to be so close together. It was the only security we had left.

“The house holds so many memories. There were summers playing baseball in the meadow, endless hours of shooting baskets, sledding down steep slopes nearby and the gleefully welcomed snow days — no school because we live on an unplowed road. We filled those snowbound days with homemade cinnamon rolls and board games.

“Now, when I open the kitchen closet door, there are lines and dates marking the children’s heights: Tyler’s on the left, Haley’s on the right and Sean’s in the middle, stopping prematurely when he was 12 and radiation to his thigh bones halted his development. While recording our children’s growth, we were measuring time and imagining a future that we never suspected would fall so short of our expectations.”

Julie’s story makes us realize that we take a lot for granted. The ancient rabbis knew that about us too. They knew that we sometimes forget the importance of our children. We ignore our parents and grandparents. We allow arguments to smolder, grudges, distance between us. The rabbis knew that we need reminding year after year, because most of us never have to face what Abraham and Sean’s mother faced — the real possibility of our children dying before our eyes. So they commanded us to walk each year, if only for a few minutes , in Abraham’s shoes, and Julie’s too. They wanted us to realize that our loved ones might die, in order to understand what it means to us that they live. To be like Sean’s family on the futons packed around the small double bed — grateful to be so close together.

L’shana tova.

Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple and the author of “The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things,” published by Behrman House Inc.