Summer and Being a Guest

Sadie Goldstein had just moved into her big, new apartment. She wanted the world to know, and the first person she called to visit was her old friend Esther.
“Mazel tov!” said Esther, “I would love to come for tea. Where do you live?”
“I live,” Sadie said, “in a beauty of a building, 993 Park Avenue. It has a gorgeous front door, so when you arrive, give it a good push with your right elbow, and as you walk in, use your left elbow to close the door behind you. Once you are inside, you will see the list of names with the buzzers; take your left elbow and ring my apartment so I can buzz you in, and then use your right elbow to press down on the handle to get into the lobby.

Walk to the elevator and use your right elbow to press
the ‘up’ arrow. Once you are in the elevator, use your left
elbow to press the button for the top floor. Walk down the
hallway to my apartment and ring the doorbell with your
right elbow, but feel free to just push the door open with
your left elbow. You’ll come in, I’ll show you around, and
we’ll have tea – I can’t wait!”

“Sadie, I can’t wait either,” Esther replied, “but if you
don’t mind me asking: What kind of directions are these
– all this business with the right elbow and left elbow?
What’s with all the elbows?”
“Well,” said Sadie, “you’re not thinking of coming empty-
handed, are you?”
Summer is here. It’s a time when we are guests in other’s
homes. So I want write this short message about being a
We Jewish people have no shortage of sources and stories
about the importance of hakhnasat orhim, the mitzvah –
the commandment – of welcoming guests. From the very
beginnings of our people, when Abraham and Sarah sat
at the opening of their tent to welcome every passerby,
hospitality ranks high in the pantheon of Jewish values.
Literally, we should always be prepared to set a place for
a person. But hospitality is a spiritual calling as well.
“You shall know the heart of the stranger, for you were
once a stranger in a strange land,” teaches Exodus. For
Jewish people, to be hospitable is a religious posture to
which we aspire, be it toward refugees at our borders or
in the way we relate to anyone seeking entry. To be

inclusive, to have empathy, to always make room for the
humanity of another person.
But that is not the hospitality I want to discuss here. I
want to talk about what it means to be a guest. As Sadie
in the story reminds us, to be a guest involves following
certain rules – a role that calls on us to act in certain
ways. When you arrive or before you arrive, you don’t
come empty-handed. You bring a gift, a treat – a bottle of
wine or flowers – for your host. And then, of course, after
you leave, you send a thank you note, ideally handwritten
but at least an email expressing gratitude for your host’s
hospitality. When you are a guest, you offer to pitch in and
clear the dishes. When you are a guest, you make sure to
clean up after yourself, leaving things in as good – if not
better – shape than you found them. A good guest doesn’t
overstay their welcome.
There are all sorts of rules that go with being a good guest.
The list is an evolving one, but the thread that ties all the
rules together is to always remember that you are a guest.
You are the visitor; you are only there for a short while,
present on account of someone else’s good graces. Soon
enough you will be gone, but your host will still be there,
and so you act with great care and respect for your
surroundings. To be a guest means to comport oneself with
an attitude of gratitude and humility. Most of all, when
you are a guest, you are deferential to the customs and
behaviors of your host. You might act a certain way in
your own home – put your feet up on the table, leave the
dishes in the sink, or dance around the kitchen in the
refrigerator light – but when you are a guest you act
according to the custom of your hosts. Why? Because it’s
their place, not yours.

In Hebrew, the mitzvah of hosting is hakhnasat orhim,
roughly translated “welcoming guests.” There is no
equivalent term for the mitzvah of being a guest. The
closest we have is the rabbinic principle called minhag
hamakom – minhag meaning “custom” and makom
meaning “place.” The gist being that when one visits a
place with customs – minhagim – different than one’s
own, one follows the minhag hamakom, the custom of the
place, not one’s own. The primary reason is the obvious
one: You are a guest, so act like one.

My fear is that far too often, far too many people have
forgotten what it means to be a guest – that people go
about living their lives thinking that wherever they are,
they own the place
but guests passing through who hopefully will live by
habits that will make this world habitable by our
children and grandchildren.

Summer is in the air. But I look out at this fractured
world in which we live, its ecological crises, its military
conflicts, its toxic and polarizing vitriol, and I wonder
what it is that our world needs now, what is that one
ingredient which, if we were all to have it, the world’s
problems might not be solved, but the people of the world
– at the very least – might be resolved to work together
to address them. Maybe the missing ingredient is the
reminder that we are all just guests in this world. How
much kinder, more deferential, humble, patient, and
spiritually curious would we all be, were we all to think
of ourselves as guests? Would we pick up after ourselves,
inquire into the condition of others, fill our days with
gratitude and politeness and respect that while we
personally may do things a certain way, we hold no
expectation that others do so, and so we embrace the
diversity of our world? In our conversations, in our places
of work, with friends and stranger alike, how might we
act like guests? We may not change the world, but we can
be the change we seek in this world – a goal that worthy
unto itself. Let’s act like good guests throughout our
Rabbi Scolnic