This article was written by Charles W. Sidoti and Rabbi Akiva Feinstein.
One of the greatest gifts that can come from working through the grief process is that the goodness we may have received from our loved ones while they were alive can continue to grow and bear fruit in our lives. I once heard someone make the comment, “We need to recognize the losses in our lives that have made us the people we are. We don’t get over our losses…they become us.” I can certainly relate this to losing my dad in 2007. I think of him often and especially recognize his influence in my life in the gift of hospitality I share with others.
My father, Charles B. Sidoti, was one of the most peaceful people I have ever known; he was also one of the most hospitable. On good terms with everyone, he always greeted people with a friendly smile. Everyone liked my dad. I think it was because he made them feel comfortable.
I recall times from my childhood when we would be on an elevator together or standing in line waiting our turn to get into some type of event, and Dad would often initiate a conversation with someone standing nearby. He felt comfortable enough to speak to a total stranger just to be friendly. He would make a comment about the weather or some current event. Often the conversation included a corny joke and laughter. Most people responded to him so well that I would eventually have to pull at his hand to get him away from the person he was talking to so we could get to where we were going. In his own simple way, Dad was able to achieve almost instant familiarity with strangers by breaking the silence that so often keeps us apart. It was a sincere and natural form of hospitality that I try to emulate in my own life.
Much of our time is spent in close proximity to other people. Things like going to school or work, shopping at the grocery store, or going to a place of worship, all of these bring us into close contact with others. Yet much of the time, we only really engage with those we already know or happen to work directly with. We may greet a stranger, but often that is just in passing, a fleeting acknowledgment while we continue on our way to something or someone else. To a great extent, this is completely natural and perfectly fine. We cannot expect to actively engage and interact with every stranger we walk by or happen to cross paths with. But it is worth some self-examination as to how open or closed we are to receiving strangers into our lives. There is a strong spiritual implication found in the way we relate to strangers.
The whole point of practicing a religion or of having a spiritual outlook toward life is to help us to connect spiritually with God, other people, and the world around us. Genuine hospitality is one of the keys to authentic spiritual growth, in that it helps us to connect with other people. Practicing hospitality leads to the expansion of our conscious awareness beyond our own familiar environment, reaching out to others in their world and welcoming them into ours.
People respond to hospitality. Have you ever experienced a day when you felt so good inside it showed on your face? Maybe something really good happened to you, or something you had been looking forward to was about to happen. For whatever reason, on that day you had a smile on your face, a distinctive glow about you, and you cheerfully greeted others. On such a day, the world seems to be a friendlier place. It isn’t your imagination; there is a reason why you experience the world differently when you feel good.
Recall the old adage, “Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.” Often dismissed as trivial or trite, most clichés actually contain a kernel of truth that can direct us to an important life principal. This one certainly does. When you feel good, you give off positive vibrations that people perceive, and they are therefore naturally drawn to you. When you are angry or otherwise feeling bad, you give off negative vibrations, and people are naturally repelled. Think about it; Do enjoy being around someone who smiles, is friendly, open and welcoming? Or do you like to be around someone who is often very intense, complaining, and frowning much of the time?
Important spiritual insights can come from all parts of life, even from the animal world. On my way to work one morning, I observed a bumper sticker that creatively focused on the importance of communicating positively with others. It said, “Wag more, bark less.” I very quickly thought of a dog, as you most likely did. This simple statement contains a great truth that can be very helpful to us if taken to heart. Dogs have a way of winning people over. Not all people of course; there are some people who simply don’t like dogs, and it is okay if you are one of those people. But by and large, people like dogs. The reason is dogs’ unconditional love, the friendly affection they naturally give and freely convey to humans. Dogs relate so well to people that they are used for therapy in hospitals and nursing homes. Petting a dog, or simply being around one, has been shown to lower blood pressure and lift the human spirit.
When a dog wags its tail in our presence, it is communicating with us in a visible and powerful way. It is conveying its inward happiness in a way that we instantly understand. Most often we respond by petting the dog or speaking kindly to it. The opposite happens when a dog barks or growls at us. It is conveying its displeasure, again in a way that we instantly understand. We react by moving away or by protecting ourselves in some way. As humans, we do the very same thing, just differently. We, like dogs, express our inner feelings in a visible way that others instantly understand. We do it through our facial expressions, body language, and speech; and they have the same powerful effect as the dog wagging its tail or barking.
In large part, dog’s hospitable nature is built in; they are hardwired, pre-programed, to be friendly. Compared to people, dogs are simple, uncomplicated creatures. But that does not mean we cannot learn a valuable lesson from them. For some humans, like my father hospitality also seems to come naturally. The rest of us have to work at it. Learning to practice hospitality can be challenging.
One reason it may be difficult for us to reach out to others is that in our human brokenness, caused by past hurts or rejections, we may have come to believe that we have nothing to offer. We may believe that our attempts to reach out to others will be rejected. The truth is otherwise. This world is full of people who would love and welcome your expression of hospitality. It may take courage, and yes, there is always the risk of rejection. Not everyone responded favorably to my father’s hospitable nature, but most people did. There is certainly a risk involved in reaching out, but the benefits you stand to reap make it a risk worth taking.
God is hospitable. If it is true that hospitality is vital to human interactions and relationships, it follows that it would be an important part of how God chooses to relate to us. It is clear in many places in the Bible that God acts with incredible hospitality toward human beings. For instance, the book of Genesis (17:1-24) tells the story of Abraham, who at the age ninety-nine undergoes circumcision, and needless to say, has a very difficult healing period. Though he likely received many human visitors to help comfort him in his pain, the Bible tells us that he was visited by none other than God. In the story, God does not simply bestow a blessing, or even send a miraculous cure, but instead graces Abraham with a personal visit.
More than a moving story, this becomes the basis for the biblical commandment to visit the sick. Sacred Scripture is filled with examples of God’s hospitality toward humankind and all of creation. In Judaism, Rav Dimi Of Nehardea, in the Talmud, said: Hachnasat orchim, Hebrew for the welcoming of guests, “is more important than study, or even the worship of God.” The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once commented on the command to welcome the stranger: “Love the stranger and the sojourner, Moses commands, because you have been strangers in the land of Egypt.” In Christianity, Jesus used the parable of the Good Samaritan as an example of God-like hospitality for us to follow. We can draw enormous personal benefit by finding ways to imitate God’s hospitality, found so often in Sacred Scripture, in our daily interactions with others.
God’s hospitality is not only found in the pages of the Bible, but is readily visible in the way the world is created. Sure, life is difficult and full of challenges, but it is also filled with things that did not have to be made so good, so tasty, so enjoyable, for any other conceivable purpose than to show God’s divine hospitality to the world’s inhabitants.
So much in this world seems to have been tailor-made for human enjoyment. The way something is created (designed) often expresses the hospitality of the creator. Consider something as simple as a banana. The potassium, other nutrients, and the relatively few calories found in this fruit could easily be provided in a tiny, tasteless berry that you could pop into your mouth. But instead, God wanted to put a lot more into the package. It is made not only to be healthy; a banana has a lovely sweet taste that does not have to be there. Next, any eater of a banana would need to know when it is ripe, so included in its packaging is a “high-tech” color sensor that tells you, to the day, when it is ready to be eaten. If you don’t have a plastic bag to protect your food when you toss it into your knapsack on the way to work, a banana has a built-in carrying case. It can be eaten by anyone from a baby to an adult human or a hungry monkey, due to its ease in being mashed up our cut into bite-size pieces.
There is a beautiful Christian song, written by Dawn Thomas, called “That’s How Much I Love You.” It’s like a love song by God to us, about how all the beautiful things in creation were made out of God’s love for us: “The mountains fair, the beautiful oceans are there to remind you I can satisfy your every need. That’s how much I love you, that’s how much I want you to know that you are my child, and you mean so much to me.” Max Ehrmann’s great poem “Desiderata” explores the individual’s place in creation, but it concludes with advice about the need for happiness: “With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.” Do the best you can to put this advice into practice by reaching out in hospitality to others, in your own unique way, even though you may be hurting inside. This won’t solve all your problems, but it will not add to them in the way having a bad temperament or openly displaying a bad mood often does. When we “wag more and bark less,” feelings of isolation and separateness slowly begin to lose their grip. People respond to us differently because we are more pleasant to be around.
Nurturing a spirit of hospitality within yourself can be very helpful in discovering the wonderful person God created you to be. Hospitality is very much an attribute of God. Growing to be more God-like, acting in union (more often) with God’s creative love and welcoming spirit, can only lead us closer to God, to others, and to all of God’s creation.
Gracious God, Creator of all that is, help me to hear and respond to your welcoming call, your gentle embrace in my life, and to respond with that same love toward others. Give me the courage to reach out to other people, in their world, and to sincerely welcome them into mine. Help me to realize that everyone I meet is truly my brother or sister and you are God of us all. Amen.