This last week, we were in Boise to attend the funeral of my mother-in-law. It was a powerful gathering of family and friends, and it was comforting to be with loved ones. Tears were shed, memories shared, and laughter abounded.
We spent a couple of days in Boise, observing shiva as well as clearing out her apartment. And over the course of those few days we had a few casual exchanges that were interesting and sometimes awkward.
First, on the way to the synagogue Sunday morning, we stopped for coffee. The barista leaned out of the drive-thru window and asked cheerfully, “so what are you up to today?” I felt like I needed to tell the truth, and so shared, “we are on our way to a funeral.”
The barista was taken aback and fumbled for what to say. He shared that his grandfather had just died a few months back. After a little small talk, he handed us our drinks and said, “uh, have a good funeral.”
Then, after the funeral on our way back to our Airbnb, we stopped for coffee again. (We are from the Northwest after all.) This time I decided I wouldn’t be so forthcoming, after the awkward exchange of the morning. “So how is your day going?”
“Oh, fine, thanks,” I replied.
The chit chat went back to paying for our drinks and waiting for order. While waiting, the barista looked at the six of us–me, Yohanna, our kids, my sister-in-law and Yohanna’s best friend–dressed up (me at the driver’s side in a suit) and said, “so, are you all coming from church?”
At that point, I couldn’t dodge anymore and said, “well, actually, we are coming from a funeral.” Again a mumbled apology, and we went on our way.
And finally, on our way out of town we stopped at an outdoor clothing/gear store that we visit whenever we are in Boise, usually when we are heading home. As we were at the cashier with our finds, the cashier asked, “so what are you up to today.”
“Heading home to Washington.”
“Oh, what were you doing in Boise?”
Again, I did not feel I needed to be completely honest. “Visiting family,” I said.
That seemed to satisfy until a minute or so later when he said, “so, did you do anything FUN when you were in town?”
And now I couldn’t avoid it. “Actually, we were here for a funeral.” Again, awkwardness and silence.
Three times we had similar experiences. They were casual encounters, the kind we have every day as we navigate our lives, the little interactions that don’t usually make an impact. But this time they took an added significance because we at the receiving end were not willing to play our part. Interactions like these are meant to create a short, pleasant, meaningful connection, but in these three, the moments were revealed for me to be banal and superficial. They are not meant to create a real human interaction, but a false one that privileges the need for happiness over the acceptance of reality.
In parasha Vayera that we read this week, we gain greater insight into the character of Abraham. As the parasha opens, Abraham rushes out to welcome strangers who come to his tent. They are divine messengers there to tell Abraham that the covenant is to be fulfilled through a child that will be born to him and Sarah. But first, before the announcement, Abraham prepares food for them, washes their feet, and makes them comfortable in his tent.
For these actions, Abraham is held up to be a paragon of hospitality, his actions emblematic of the later Jewish value of hachnasat orechim, welcoming guests. Abraham embodies this value by not only welcoming them in generally, but by meeting them where they are and then being responsive to their needs.
We don’t need the grand gestures of Abraham to embody this value. Perhaps all we need to do, and what we can do even in our most casual encounters, is to meet people where they are and be responsive to their needs.
I admit that in those encounters at the coffee shops and store in Boise I could have been less candid. Indeed, after the first time I tried to be, until I felt I could not. But in thinking about these interactions, I wonder too what if the servers had a genuine reaction to the fact that we were a car full of mourners?
What if, when we first enter into these type of engagements, we can expect genuine, and not pat, answers? And what if we train ourselves to react appropriately, ready with a word of compassion just as easily as with a word of confelicity.
What if, instead of saying “have a good day,” we start to say, “have a meaningful day?”
Life is not always pleasant after all, we are experiencing pain as well as joy at all times. We would do well to recognize this fact in all of our encounters, from the intimate to the casual. When we do so, we have a better chance of giving expression our shared humanity, and to truly be open and welcoming to each other.