This post originally appeared on the Harold Grinspoon Foundation's Voices & Visions website.
by Morlie Levin
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are unique experiences for many of us, different from other times of the year. We may be more in touch with ourselves and our heritage, or we simply may want to celebrate and reflect with our community. Whatever the specific feeling or desire, the common thread often is a yearning to connect to something meaningful in some way.
We are inspired by the story read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah – the Torah portion Vayera – when Abraham welcomed in the three angels, total strangers to him. He enthusiastically received them, and even offered a feast of food and drink. In this portion, our forefather Abraham is practicing one of Judaism’s greatest virtues, hachnasat orchim, or welcoming in the stranger.
Vayera teaches us about what it means to truly welcome in the stranger—or any guest. It says, “Abraham raised his eyes and saw three men,” indicating that Abraham did not just react to the situation, but instead raised his own eyes, and acted above and beyond what most of us would do if we saw strangers approaching.
The strangers, we learn, are angels in disguise, and this is an important lesson when we think about strangers in our own lives. Abraham goes about giving these strangers the royal treatment, as if he knew they were angels. But he didn’t—he simply treats the stranger with the same dignity that he would treat angels, or any human, for that matter. Why? It’s a great example of acknowledging that our fellow humans (strangers or not) were made b’tzelem Elohim—in the image of God—and are thus holy. Strangers become guests, who become holy, and to Abraham, it’s all the same.
It is our responsibility to be like Abraham—to lift our eyes, reach out, and welcome in the holy strangers in our communities.
On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we hope that the hundreds of thousands of Birthright Israel alumni across the country feel the presence of hachnasat orchim, whether they are welcomed in by communities to which they return, or create their own experience to welcome in others. The High Holidays are our opportunity to plant the seeds of connection, so that all of us are poised to have deeper and more meaningful Jewish experiences throughout the year.
Morlie Levin is the CEO of NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation. NEXT is now offering an interactive map listing hundreds of services, learning opportunities, dinners, and break-fasts across the United States for the upcoming High Holidays.