I’m often asked what is the greatest mitzvah a man can perform? Or at least I was asked it once by someone who donated a rubbish piece of “art” to the shul hall and was obviously fishing for a compliment. Is it pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, for which even the laws of the Sabbath can be suspended? – Possibly. Or what about the mitzvah between man and man that was deemed so important it was placed with the commandments between man and G-d: kibud ov voeim – honour thy father and thy mother? Unlikely, especially if your mother used to make you eat every meal alone in the cellar whilst she checked the living room carpet for miniaturised aliens and Soviet spies. No, the greatest mitzvah is undoubtedly giving shelter to the homeless.
Of course, I don’t mean any homeless. You certainly wouldn’t want to open your home to anyone holding a can of Carlsberg or speaking with a Scottish accent. I’m sure even our forefather Abraham, when he ran out to offer hospitality to the three passing strangers in Genesis 18, will have first checked that they weren’t toothless hobos smelling of astringent or dreadlocked youths with mangy, antisemitic dogs on a string outside Tesco Metro who seem to find it amusing to remind you and anyone else within a half a mile radius that you asked for 20 pence change for the 50p you gave him out of the goodness of your heart about seven months ago, and who wouldn’t stop shouting at you even when you stood over him with a megaphone and read to him from tractate Pesachim 49a about habitual parasites and unscrupulous beggars, dreadlocked or otherwise.
Of course, he’ll be laughing now that temporarily the “boot’s on the other foot”, as he put it, even if it is only a metaphorical “boot” as the only footwear I could find on being ruthlessly ejected from the synagogue was my Yom Kippur slippers, one of which I have now lost to a pool of setting concrete (where was the sign?!). Luckily, I always carry a chunk of my JC articles with me in case anyone needs emergency enlightening and, fashioning them into a rough shoe-shape, I shod myself in my own words, reassured that, as King Solomon tells us, “he who walks in wisdom is safe”.
I wish I could say the same about the members of my congregation. Out of 106 doors knocked on, only old Mrs Glatstein offered me a bed for the night, and that was probably more due to her Altsheimer’s, as she clearly thought I was her husband who left her 20 years ago. And to tell the truth, after spending one evening in her company, I can’t say I blame him. Yes, hospitality is a great mitzvah until it becomes confused with handcuffing your guest’s ankle to the bedstead whilst chanting “You’ll never leave me again, Morris” over and over like some geriatrically unhinged ki l’olom chasdo from the morning service.
But in the words of the Psalmist, the L-rd delivers me from mine enemies including Mrs Glatstein. More than that, He brings me my very own Abraham in the unlikely shape of my son’s friend Leo. Unlike our forefather, he lives not in a tent on the plain of Mamre, but opposite the Tesco Metro in Camden Town, where he’d just popped in to buy something called Rizlas which apparently are papers for making cigarettes; unlike Abraham, he didn’t see three strangers wandering across the sands in front of his tent, but a middle-aged Rabbi lying on the pavement wrestling with a dreadlocked youth’s dog on a string. He may not have run to slaughter a tender calf from his herd, but he did provide an excellent vegetarian dish he called “magical” mushrooms which certainly were magical and cheered me right up, even though after a while I was convinced that a goat with the Chief Rabbi’s face was standing over the sofa watching me eat.
“The wicked are gone, but the righteous (Leo) stand forever”. Although why he’s flying around the room with catching flies with his huge froggy tongue I’ve no idea.
The Weekly Words of Wisdom first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle