Feet. Cold feet. It’s hard not to think about feet this time of year in the frozen north. Which boots will keep my feet warmest and driest when forced to venture forth? One kind of boots for wet, slushy snow. Another for the powdery white stuff. One for walking long distances, another for merely getting to and from the car. I may not have as many pairs of boots as Eskimos have words for snow, but the concept is similar.
Years ago, I heard a lecture from a retired professor of biblical literature about feet in the Bible. Mary Ellen Chase talked about how often feet are mentioned. “People walked and walked,” she said. “They walked across the desert; they walked from oasis to oasis. Protected only by sandals, their feet got hot and dirty. Washing a guest’s feet was the most gracious form of hospitality.”
I recalled this lecture on a recent, frigid Sabbath morning. A young friend, who graduated with the same religion major from the same college forty years after I did, walked to my home to study the Bible with me. She removed her down coat, fleece sweater, scarf, gloves and boots. I opened a bin full of cuddly slippers and she chose a pair.
I led her to the kitchen and opened our walnut tea box. She quickly spotted one of her favorite flavors among the dozen varieties. We took our tea and Bibles into the dining room and settled down to read the section that Jews the world over read that particular Sabbath. I sat under a lithograph by the Israeli artist, Reuven Rubin. A white-bearded, turbaned Abraham offers fruit to three angels who float around him. In the lower corner is a vase of red, yellow, and white flowers that seem to have been freshly picked. Near the welcoming bouquet is an angel’s bare foot.
The story of Abraham and the three men or angels, considered in Judaism to be the prototype of hospitality, mentions feet. “As soon as [Abraham] saw them, he ran from the entrance of the tent to greet them and, bowing to the ground, he said, ‘My lords, if it please you, do not go on past your servant. Let a little water be brought; bathe your feet and recline under the tree….’”
Rochester summers do not resemble the scorching temperatures of Abraham’s Near East. Walking in shoes on paved sidewalks is not like treading sandal clad across a sandy desert. My guests would consider an offer to wash their feet inappropriate, if not crazy. On the other hand, they would gratefully accept a cool drink. The details of hospitality, it seems to me, are bound to time and place. What worked in the land of Israel 5,000 years ago would not work in Rochester, New York, in 2014. And yet the concept remains: like Abraham, we want our guests to feel welcome, to be comfortable, to believe that for the time they are at our home, they are worthy of our most detailed attention.
My husband and I worry about our winter guests, who often slush a mile and a half along snowy sidewalks to get to our home for Sabbath lunch. Instead of a basin of water, we offer them an assortment of slippers to warm their cold feet. I believe that if Abraham had lived in the snow belt instead of the desert, he would still have been the model of hospitality. He would have invited his guests to warm themselves by the fire, he’d have offered them tea, and he’d have provided sheepskin slippers for their feet.