The term “Southern Hospitality” has long been in our American lexicon to describe persons living below the Mason Dixon line having a proclivity toward treating guests exceedingly well. This sometimes connotates a simpler time when doors were not locked, families ate together and there was always extra food on the table, and a bedroom ready if guests needed to stay.
Growing up as a Jew in the South, this concept was generally amplified considerably.
You see, being a distinct minority, Jews in the south are either related to each other or have, in terms the game of Jewish Geography, one to two degrees of separation at most. Certainly it can be confusing at times- it took me 30 years to figure out “2nd cousin once removed” but that’s the point- there’s a certain closeness in such a small group that engenders hospitality. For example, my Uncle’s in-laws would have 40-50 people over their house for a Seder; we’re talking cousins through marriage, in-laws, ex-in-laws, neighbors, the mailman, you name it. That’s just how it worked growing up as a southern Jew.
As much as I can chalk this hospitality up to circumstance, I’d like to think there’s something more, something in our collective consciousness as Jews that promotes such concern for others.
The underpinnings of this concept are firmly rooted in this week’s Parsha. Bible Belt expressions of hospitality borrow heavily from this passage but gloss over the important details. They are as follows:
Here we find Abraham Avinu, our proverbial “granddaddy of ancestors” at home on a day most of us would probably not be welcoming guests. He’s 99 years old at this point and just had a Bris melilah as per Hashem’s command.
On the third day post-op, where we know that inflammation and hence pain are typically the worst, three angels disguised as wondering nomads show up at Abraham’s tent. I think even the most diehard southerner would agree that Abraham should get a pass on entertaining guests at this point. Yet when he first perceives the potential guests in the distance, Abraham literally runs to greet them. Moreover, although he suspects them of being idol worshippers, Avraham calls himself their servant and almost begs them to stay.
What is very telling, however, is his description of the offered food- וְאֶקְחָ֨ה פַת־לֶ֜חֶם וְסַעֲד֤וּ לִבְּכֶם֙ “And let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves”
Despite this understated invitation, we learn from the commentators that Avraham prepared a sumptuous meal with the help of Sarah and his servant including lamb, fine cakes (from the description it seems that it was during Pesach) and milk or cheese (Either they are the dairy first or they were Yekkis and only held an hour after fleshigs)
Either way, Avraham’s humility and his over the top level of hospitality highlights an intrinsic lesson:
In Pirke Avos, Shammai offers a guidepost on how the צדיקים (righteous ones) conduct themselves
שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, … אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:
“Speak little, but do much; and receive all men with a pleasant countenance.”
Avraham personifies this dictum. Not only does he describe the meal in minimal terms, he is also sensitive in how he asks the guests to wash the dust off their feet in such a way as not to embarrass them given his suspicion of idolatry ( apparently dust worship was a thing then)
What’s curious here is the fact that Abraham apparently makes no effort whatsoever to influence them toward Judaism. Or so it seems.
Reb Israel Salanter, father of the mussar movement, was famously quoted for his recommendation that a pious person should worry about his own רוחניות (spirituality) and other people’s גשמיות (physical needs).
I think Abraham was spiritually in tune in to this concept. Moreover, I would suggest this is precisely what made him such an overwhelming success in bringing people into the realm of Jewish monotheism.
Instead of using “fire and brimstone” to coerce guests into following in Hashems ways, Avraham instead demonstrates how a servant of G-d interacts with his fellow man.
Hospitality, or “הכנסת אורחים” is basically Avraham’s playbook, winning converts by showing care and respect, engendering a desire to learn more about the religion that puts such emphasis on how we treat each other.
As the spiritual descendants of Avraham, It’s not hard to see why this concept has embedded in our DNA.
One last thing- I reviewed a map of ancient Israel, trying to find the area called Mamre- the locale where the Avraham called home.
Unsurprisingly, I found it to be located in the south. Avraham Avinu a fellow southerner? – I should have known.
Have a good Shabbos and feel free to drop by anytime y’all.