The wandering Jew, the mitzvah of hosting, and the ‘soul’ of the stranger

Wherever we travel, we pack our Jewish selves with us before we hit the road or skies. Indeed, we observe the world through Jewish lenses.

Suitcases image

In our October issue of the magazine, we embark upon Jewish journeys around the world. Wherever we travel, we pack our Jewish selves with us before we hit the road or skies. Indeed, we observe the world through Jewish lenses.

Whether it's to Jerusalem, Tokyo, Savannah, or Sydney, you can find a minyan , a Shabbat dinner, or a Jewish holiday observance almost anywhere you go. I recall eating lingonberries on a Shabbat dinner spent in a town outside of Stockholm, davening in Nogales, on the border between the U.S. and Mexico, and taking in a tango show followed by a kosher steak dinner in Buenos Aires.

And wherever our itineraries take us, we're bound to find a Jewish connection and to play a game of Jewish geography. Years ago, I traveled to a suburb on the outskirts of Jackson, Mississippi with a group of my Jewish communal professional peers. We popped into a tiny hole-in-the-wall bar and I struck up a conversation with a couple of strangers sitting nearby. A few sips into my beer, I discovered that one of my new friends, a southern transplant, had previously worked as an assistant for JCC Chicago. What are the odds? 

Our current place in the Jewish calendar is the ideal time to talk about travel as we get ready to celebrate the joyous holiday of Sukkot, starting on the heels of the High Holidays. The Torah tells us on Sukkot, one of the three pilgrimage holidays (the others are Passover and Shavuot), to replicate living in huts, in sukkahs , just as the wandering Israelites did for 40 years when God brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Now, when you travel today, your stay is a bit shorter than 40 years--say a week or two if you're lucky--and your temporary dwelling at the Hyatt or a Sheraton is likely sturdier than the sukkah made of flimsy wood and palm. But our modern-day travels can still evoke lessons from our ancestors wandering on foreign soil for a generation.

The onus of the holiday of Sukkot is placed upon the hosts rather than on the visitors. Sukkot inspires the beautiful mitzvah of hachnasat orchim , hospitality, where we're asked to invite friends and strangers alike to share in the bounty of our sukkah.

The Torah tells us that we should welcome guests, particularly out-of-town travelers, because we "know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt." (Exodus 23.9)

Welcoming guests, Jewish tradition tells us, takes precedence over Torah study and is even paramount to worshiping God.

The mitzvah of welcoming the traveler takes me back to the delightful Broadway musical, Come From Away , which I saw over the summer when the show stopped in Chicago. It is the poignant, yet charming true story of the 7,000 passengers stranded in the small town of Newfoundland, Canada in the days after 9/11 when air traffic came to a standstill.

The generous inhabitants of Newfoundland welcomed the passengers, creating a temporary home for them to stay in until air travel was up and running again. The show demonstrates how this initial chaos and clash of cultures, amidst this unthinkable emergency, evolves into unlikely friendships between the Canadian residents and their unexpected visitors.

So, as we move forward this holiday season into the joyous holiday of Sukkot, let's think about inviting guests into our temporary dwellings--friends, neighbors, strangers, and out-of-town travelers--because we as Jews "know the soul of the stranger." 

"The onus of the holiday of Sukkot is placed upon the hosts rather than on the visitors. "



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