The first time I was invited to a Jewish Passover Seder twenty-five years ago, I was struck by the traditions of welcoming that open and close the ceremonial part of the dinner. The first is the invitation for the stranger to join the table, accompanied by an opening of the front door. The second is the invitation to the prophet Elijah, who has a place set for him at the table and a glass of wine poured. At this recitation, the household door is opened again, an invitation to the prophet to take his place at the table. The Seder recounts the flight of the Jewish people from persecution, wandering in the desert as refugees from slavery in Egypt. As people who have experienced the pain of being “unwanted refugees”, it is no wonder one of their central rituals involves welcoming in strangers and blessed ones alike.
As a young social justice activist, I was moved to learn of a tradition that encoded the act of making space for the wandering soul in need. It defies “charitable” giving (a hierarchy which I despise); it is not the act of setting food outside one’s door or dropping a couple of cans into a hamper on the way out of the grocery, which is so often where our notions of giving end. The opening of one’s door and home is an act of solidarity and intimacy. It is to join another as an equal at the same table, and participate together in a ritual of sharing and nourishment.
After that first seder, I thought about that type of invitation a lot and how to bring it into my own practice of potlucks and household gatherings. At that stage of my life, I lived with a changing cast of roommates who all cooked for each other and friends regularly. There was almost always a stranger at the table (or sitting on the floor in the living room) back then. I lived most of my life by this admired principle. But as I’ve grown older, my life has become more private and to some degree more constricted by work and a need for order. In middle-age, my husband and I do not live in a way that invites people randomly into our home though we both live with the expectation that someone might just show up – having come from households where that happened (we both grew up in families that took people in – it’s how I ended up with a “foster” brother).
In pre-Covid times, we hosted large dinners at our home with some regularity. Given our very loose invitation policy and the fact people ask to bring a friend, or cancel at the last minute, errant place settings frequently end up on the table. When a gathering is particularly sizable, we put on an extra setting or two intentionally, just in case we miscounted our numbers. Brian and I refer to this the place for Elijah, in the nod to the tradition of inviting in both stranger and prophet (who may be one and the same – prophets do not always come in a guise we recognize). It’s a symbol of our approach to both hosting and helping, something that shows up in our daily practice of making enough food at every dinnertime so an unexpected guest can be fed, and the fact we keep a spare room ready for overnight guests.
We don’t do this out of “kindness” or charity, but frankly, because it’s a joyful way to live. To shout over the fence at a neighbour walking by to join us for dinner is to enliven the day with unexpected company. To have a guest bring an add-on is to meet someone new and expand our circle. To hear about the struggles of others is to widen our compassion and empathy for those living in different circumstances. To fire up the oven to cook and bake for others is to warm the house. For all of the quiet days Brian and I choose to live together, we welcome the chaotic ones even when they are inconvenient or a bit messy. It’s one of the things I value most about our life together – the willingness on both our parts to attempt a response to what life is asking of us rather than shutting the door because it is too much.
Covid has made it difficult to imagine inviting in friends, let alone strangers. But the needs of others persist, for community, kinship, and help in getting by. As things start to shift over the next few months, I hope we can collectively let go of some of the fear and start letting people back into our lives. We have found it difficult to live with a mostly-closed door in the last year, not because we want to get on with shopping and international travel, but because our lives are poorer for the strangers we have not met and the friends we haven’t broken bread with in all this time. After this first shot we are opening our door little by little, in hope that by autumn we are flinging it wide open for a 30-person Thanksgiving feast!