KJ Hannah Greenberg

An Unexpected Teacher

During Pesach, my family welcomed a stranger into our home to join us for a few meals and to sleep over. We’ve been fortunate to provide hachnasat orchim for decades. As a result this event was not singular in that sense. It was, however, remarkable in that our visitor had taxing mental health issues of which we hadn’t been informed and for which we hadn’t prepared.

Namely, our guest didn’t wash after using the toilet, grabbed whatever items he desired from our serving plates, never used “please” or “thank-you,” and repeatedly spilled food and drink on himself, on our table, and on our floor. As well, he’d interrupt anyone else who was speaking and drone on and on, communicating about everything from Torah topics to sports statistics. When he began to reference sexual matters and didn’t stop when asked, I left our dining room and sat in my office until he and my husband went to shul.

Granted, unlike others of our guests, that man stole nothing, broke nothing, threatened harm to no small children, brought no treif into our home, and arrived neither drunk nor stoned (over the tens of years during which my family has provided food and lodging for strangers, we’ve experienced all of the above.)

On balance, we’ve also had countless opportunities to help with kiruv, aid community achdut, meet amazing rabbanim and dayanim, foster significant numbers of bnai and banot bayit, provide solace to displaced persons and to women whose husbands are at war, feed “yummies” to vegetarians, vegans, and raw food eaters, and much more. Less that half of a percent of our guests have been “difficult.”

What’s more, each and every visitor to our home has enabled us to perform the mitzvah of hosting. Some were facilitators. Many taught Torah. All enriched our lives. Even the recent, mentally compromised, Passover guest was our teacher.

Whereas it’s relatively easy to be compassionate about physical limits whether they’re temporary like a sprained ankle, or permanent like blindness, kindheartedness around mental limits requires a different sort of mindfulness. While, it helps to know in advance that a visitor needs atypical support, e.g., the seminary girl with the sprained ankle needed to elevate her foot and to have ice (or, in our home, a bag of frozen broccoli) available, and the blind neighbor needed certain preparations of food so that he could feed himself, my family doesn’t always receive notice about guests’ needs.

Sure, we’re often told if people fear cats (we’re companions to two kitties), if guests have allergies (dairy, nuts, and the like are easy to leave out of recipes), and when certain topics are triggers for visitors (on Shabbot and Yom Tovim we try to avoid mundane matters, but even spiritual themes can leave individuals feeling less than or completely foreign.) Other times, we know nothing, in advance, about folks new to our home. We didn’t for instance, know that one such somebody planned to stay a night beyond their invitation (we drove them to the bus station, instead), that another such somebody was a childhood friend of a member of our shul (we consequently invited that member and her family for Seudah Shlishit), or that a certain yeshiva boy needed to help serve since “comfort,” for him, meant emulating his father, a rabbi whose home was always open to others.

In any case, other than seeking needed treatment, a human being can no more alter a mental handicap than a physical one. Accordingly, Hubs and I used our practiced skills to accommodate that visitor. Thereafter, when reflecting on his time in our home, I appreciated that I know nothing. Hence, I prayed that during my time in The World to Come, there will be more mercy shown to me than I had shown that guest.

More exactly, our generation is the “heel” of Yiddishkeit. We can’t conceive of how spiritually broken we are. Nonetheless, we want the neshemot that we meet in the next world to treat us with kindness and consideration. Despite all of our mitzvot, zedakah, and Torah studies in this world, it’s extremely possible that we’ll seem fragmented when viewed by the next world’s loftier souls.

None of us ought to affix judgment on our peers in this world, especially if we want mercy in the next one. I can’t imagine how our “thoughts,” “words” and “deeds” might register, in Olam HaBa, among selves whose perspective is beyond our conception. Likely, we’ll appear more shattered than the most recent visitor to my family’s home appeared this Pesach.

We’ll hope that the superior middot of Gan Eden’s established dwellers will cause them to regard us gently. Since no one can elevate themselves in the next world, the versions of us that those giants meet will encounter be the versions with which we leave this Olam HaZeh. Relative to those inhabitants’ essences, ours will appear damaged.

On the whole, it’s not easy to abide strangers, in one’s home, who are clueless about normal behavior. However, it’s important to do so. Hashem gives us the wherewithal to actualize all of our experiences, no matter how dauting they seem. Additionally, it would be hateful to us to be treated poorly just because we lack qualities that other individuals take for granted (think of Hillel’s famous saying.).

For that reason, when dear friends, who were visiting later during the week of Pesach and who knew our schedule for the holiday, asked how our new guest’s visit was, I replied, “challenging.” I then quickly added, “Yet, Baruch Hashem for the opportunity!”

About the Author
KJ Hannah Greenberg has been playing with words for an awfully long time. Initially a rhetoric professor and a National Endowment for the Humanities Scholar, she shed her academic laurels to romp around with a prickle of imaginary hedgehogs. Thereafter, her writing has been nominated once for The Best of the Net in poetry, three times for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for poetry, once for the Pushcart Prize in Literature for fiction, once for the Million Writers Award for fiction, and once for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay. To boot, Hannah’s had more than forty books published and has served as an editor for several literary journals.
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