I once read a story (a musser) where, on a very cold night in the winter, a poor man comes to the rabbi and says that his wife just had a baby, but he has no firewood in his house to keep them warm, and no money to pay for wood.
The rabbi takes him to the house of a very wealthy man and knocks on the door. When the wealthy man opens the door, he immediately asks the rabbi to enter. The rabbi declines, asking the wealthy man to step outside into the icy evening instead. The wealthy man, out of respect for the rabbi, agrees. The rabbi shares the plight of the poor man, and the rich man immediately tells the poor man to help himself to as much firewood as he needs from his woodshed, at no charge. The poor man is very grateful, takes the wood, and leaves.
At that point, the wealthy man again invites the rabbi into his house, and this time the rabbi accepts. The wealthy man asked the rabbi why he made him come outside, when he gladly would have given the poor man the wood anyway. The rabbi said, “Maybe, but in that moment, you felt what he felt, and understood his situation, and were inclined to be even more generous.”
I would like to suggest that this crisis is a chance to learn. It is a chance to open everyone’s eyes. For most families, the isolation created by the covid-19 virus is temporary. Hard as it is to see it now, eventually life will resume its normal course, and everyone will be back to their social norms. Everyone will return to having guests on Shabbat and yom tov, and the children will return to their play dates and schools and activities.
Right now, everyone is agonizing over how they will manage, how their children are missing social interactions with their friends, and how terrible it is not to be able to spend time with others. Now, consider those people for whom this is a year-round existence. The children who watch other children get together, or hear the children making plans with their friends for Shabbat, yet are never invited along, instead returning to their homes to spend the day alone. The families who, despite living within and amongst the community, nevertheless spend Shabbatot and chaggim alone. The elderly who live alone, far from family, and sit at their Shabbat tables by themselves.
All of these people live for shul, a shiur, or a seldom-offered invitation as a reprieve from the loneliness, but they return to their isolation afterward.
If we take nothing else from this situation, let us remember the true meaning of hachnasat orchim — welcoming strangers – once it is safe to do so again, and let us understand how important this mitzvah is. At this time, while you all have the time, and while the thing on everyone’s mind is thinking about when we all can go back to our normal lives, take a moment. Talk to your children. Encourage them to reach out to classmates, children in shul, and children on sports teams they’re part of, and to include them.
Remind your children how this isolation feels, and ask them how it would feel to know only this kind of life. Lead by example, showing your children what a mitzvah it is to welcome others, even if they don’t know them well, or at all. Let us remember that no one should be left to spend Shabbatot and chaggim alone, week after week, waiting for a reprieve.
If we don’t learn from these events, we will have squandered a golden opportunity to do better.
Reena Forst lives in Englewood; she is the mother of a 12-year-old son.