Trick or Treat: Halloween and Audacious Hospitality

Rabbi Berkowitz’s d’var Torah on parashat Vayera from our Shabbat evening services. Cross-posted to This is What a Rabbi Looks Like.

Each year, I get into an argument with my students about the merits of Purim versus Halloween. If you think about it logically, it makes far more sense to dress up and go house to house giving people candy than to bang on people’s doors and demand it. I never win this argument; just as I never win the argument that a headband with ears on it does not turn a mini-dress into a cat costume.

I don’t have anything against Halloween—or Jewish children’s participation in it. I don’t necessarily think Jewish schools should include it in the curriculum, but an American Jewish child trick-or-treating poses no spiritual threat for me.

I have happy memories of attempting to keep my costume visible under a puffy winter coat, of the spooky house where the local Drivers’ Ed teacher served hot apple cider out of a cobwebbed punch bowl, and of the annual post-trick-or-treat candy exchange with my brothers.

Now, for the first time, I’m preparing to experience Halloween from the other side of the door. And as I read this week’s Torah portion, I wondered: How would Abraham and Sarah welcome their trick-or-treaters?

Abraham and Sarah are known for the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, welcoming guests, or what our movement now calls “audacious hospitality.” That distinction stems from this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, where Abraham and Sarah welcome three strangers into their home, who tell them that, after decades of infertility, they will finally have a child of their own.

Abraham, in this scene, is 99 years old, and recovering from major surgery. And yet, these few lines are punctuated with words for speed. Abraham runs from his tent to greet the wayfarers, he hurries to Sarah and tells her to hurry and make cakes for the guests. He runs to the flock and chooses a calf to serve the travelers, which his servant hurries to prepare. Though he does not yet know that the strangers are messengers from God, he offers them the royal treatment: water for drinking and bathing their feet, curds and milk and fatted calf to eat—there is no kashrut yet—and a place to rest under a shady tree. And though he is a pretty important person himself, Abraham even waits on the men as they eat (Gen. 18: 1-8).

The plain text shows that Abraham and Sarah go above and beyond to make their guests feel welcome. The rabbis craft legend upon legend of Abraham and Sarah opening their home to strangers and going out of their way to help those in need.

Some say that Abraham and Sarah’s tents were open on all sides, so that no one would have to go around in circles looking for a way in. They provided not only what the guests were accustomed to, but the finest of everything: wine, wheat bread, and meat. And they did not simply sit there and wait for guests to arrive: they went out into the world to invite people in, even setting up way-stations along the road where people could eat, drink and rest, wherever they happened to be (BOL 679:361, Avot 1:15/ARN 7).

In fact, the tamarisk or eshel tree that Abraham plants at the end of chapter 21 is said to be a wordplay on she-al, “asking,” as in “whatever you ask for, I will give you.” Or eshel could be an acronym for achilah (eating), shtiyah (drinking), and linah (lodging) or l’vayah (accompanying) depending on which rabbi you ask (Legends of the Jews v. 248, n. 225, EC 117, Plaut 145). Once the travelers had finished enjoying whatever Abraham and Sarah had provided for them, they were encouraged not to thank their hosts, but to praise God who had provided everything (Sotah 10a). Abraham and Sarah’s hospitality reminds us that food and drink and shelter are not ours to give, but God’s to share.

Is this how it feels to approach our door?

So how might the Jewish tradition help us to practice hachnasat orchim in our homes on Halloween? And what can the opening of our homes on Halloween teach us about audacious hospitality in our Jewish community?

First of all, what do you say when you open the door? I was an imaginative kid who loved dressing up, and often trick-or-treated as obscure literary characters or in costumes I had made myself, long after I should have been “too old.” And I speak from experience when I say that there is no more heartbreaking question for a costumed child than, “What are you supposed to be?”

These people weren’t trying to be mean or dismissive. They were just curious. They wanted to know what I was trying to be so that they could react appropriately.

Likewise, when people come into our synagogue, we’re curious to know who they are, so that we can respond accordingly. We strive to welcome people of all ages and backgrounds, all gender identities and sexual orientations, and from families of all shapes, sizes and compositions. Naturally, when we meet someone whose identity doesn’t fit into our preconceived notion of Jewish-ness, gender, or family, we’re curious.

When we ask questions like, “How did you become Jewish?” “Are your children adopted?” “Why is your last name McCarthy?” we may just be trying to get to know someone. But even our most basic questions may hit a nerve: when we ask a single person where his or her partner is, when we ask an infertile couple about their children, or when we ask a person of color when he or she converted, not realizing that this isn’t always the case.

Just as we might better welcome a trick-or-treater by saying, “What a great costume! Tell me more about it!” we might better welcome a new person to our synagogue by saying, “We are so glad you’re here! Tell us about yourself!” This sends the message to our children, and our guests: You are welcome in our home, we want you to be comfortable being whoever it is that you are, and we hope that you will tell us your story in your own time.

Click the pumpkin for more information.

Once someone is in the door, we, like Abraham and Sarah, want to provide them with the best of everything, and whatever it is that they need. This year, the Food Allergy Research and Education organization has asked that houses put out a teal pumpkin (or a sign with a teal pumpkin on it) to let trick-or-treaters know that there are non-food treats available for children with life-threatening food allergies.

This, also, has applications in the synagogue. We should strive to meet the needs of our guests: with allergy-friendly snacks, accessible facilities, and transliterated or large-print siddurim for those who struggle with Hebrew or reading. This also applies to the language we use: “partner” and “parent” rather than wife, husband, mother or father; “person from another faith background,” rather than “non-Jew.” By expanding our language, we are less likely to exclude someone who doesn’t fit into our original boxes.

And like putting the teal pumpkin on the porch, we need to let potential guests know that we are welcoming. What does it say on our lawn, on our door, on our website to let people know that we have what they need, and that we can provide a safe space for people in the LGBT community, for interfaith families, and for people with special needs. What would it be like to put on our front door: Come in! We have an elevator and gluten free cookies!?!

And if we were truly to be like the Abraham and Sarah of legend, we may not even want to make our trick-or-treaters come all the way to our house. In some communities, neighborhood groups set up a “trunk-or-treat” so that younger children can go from car to car in a lighted parking lot, rather than wander through a dark cul-de-sac, ringing doorbells.

This can be compared to Abraham stocking his warehouses on the side of the road. And it can inspire us to imagine ways that we can rush out to greet the people who need us. Where are the travelers passing through that we could go to meet them? And what kind of physical and spiritual sustenance can we provide for them along the way?

A Conservative colleague of mine once shared that, coming from a traditional household, trick-or-treating had not been an option. Instead, she stayed home with her family and passed out candy to the neighborhood children. How was this explained to her? “My father told us we were practicing hachnasat orchim.”

In the Genesis text, Abraham gives the calf to a servant to prepare for the guests. A midrash tells us that this servant was actually his son Ishmael, and that Abraham delegated this task so that Ishmael could learn the importance of welcoming guests (Gen. R. 48:13).

Centuries later, we are still learning from Abraham and Sarah how practice audacious hospitality. As we celebrate Shabbat as a community, and as we look forward to welcoming trick-or-treaters into our homes, may our doors be open wide, may our treats be both safe and sweet, and may we imagine new ways we can run out of our tents to do the mitzvah of welcoming guests.

Shabbat Shalom and, for the first time from the bimah, Happy Halloween.

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