A little while ago, I got repeated phone calls from a young couple who wanted to come to for Shabbat. We’d had them a few months’ ago – it was OK, but nothing special. The conversation was pretty stilted, and my girls left the table after a few minutes, because it was borrringggg.
Unfortunately as the host, I couldn’t join them in their room. So I soldiered on with our taciturn guests, making polite conversation until it was the bless-ed time of bentching.
Like I said, I’ve had worst shabbos experiences, but I’ve also definitely had better, and I wasn’t so keen on repeating the experience any time soon.
In the old days, I had a huge fear of being ‘guest-less’ for Shabbat, but the last couple of years have been pretty solitary in many ways, and as a result I’ve learned to not only tolerate ‘family only’ Shabbats, but even to welcome them.
Add into the mix the huge amounts of stress I’ve been under, in various ways, over the past few months, and voila, we reach a situation where I often don’t have Shabbat guests, and I’ve got a lot more fussy about who sits by my table.
(I know: what can I tell you? I’m definitely not Artscroll Biography material.)
So when this young couple asked if they could come again, I told my husband to make our excuses and decline.
Behind the scenes, I was having quite an intense ‘teenager’ time, and I also didn’t have a lot of spare energy and koach for guests. It was that time a couple of months’ ago when even cooking for myself had become a bit tricky.
A few weeks’ on, the couple asked again. Again, we made our excuses. My kids had friends staying over, and from our previous experience with them, this couple didn’t really ‘combine’ well with anyone else.
A few weeks’ on, they asked again. Again, I had far too much going on in my life to handle guests, and I told my husband to decline. Which is when I started to ponder to myself: what’s going on here?
I mean, if I’d told them the first time to come whenever they wanted, and just call, and it would be a pleasure to have them, that would be one thing, and I’d have no complaints.
But I didn’t, and I hadn’t, and to keep calling after repeatedly being told ‘no’ set some alarm bells ringing.
Even in university when I was dead skint and had one armchair that I’d rescued from next to the dumpster, I used to invite my friends for meals and Shabbat suppers. Even when I was a young 20-something newly married (and still dead skint…) I used to have guests almost every week.
It’s just something me and my husband did, and it never depended on us having a lot of cash or a perfect home.
By contrast, something that me and my husband never, ever, did was invite ourselves over to someone else for Shabbat –
(barring the one time I asked really good friends if we could come for lunch last minute, as I’d been caught up in some crazy situation and hadn’t been able to buy or cook anything myself.)
With friends, you can do those things and it’s ok, because it’s clear that you’re not just after a free lunch, and that there’s some mutual caring and reciprocity going on.
So we can argue it’s just an age thing, a stage-in-life thing, but I don’t think I agree. I invited people decades’ older than me for meals in London, right from the first year I was married.
After pondering it, and wondering if I’ve just got plain mean, it struck me that’s what’s bothering me about all this is that there doesn’t seem to be any reciprocity on the table. It feels as though there’s an expectation that I’m just meant to happily have this couple for Shabbat, ad infinitum, with no friendship, caring or concern in return, simply because I’m 41 and been married for 18 years.
I’ve had times – plenty of them – when I was terribly lonely on Shabbat. I’ve also had times when I could barely afford to buy a chicken for Friday night supper – but I never expected someone else to fill that lack for me. That would be making my problem their problem. What I have done to alleviate my loneliness, more times than I can count, is to reach out to someone else, someone new, and to invite them over to me.
I know, what a shocking thought!
But just maybe, God is giving this young couple plenty of quiet Shabbats for a reason. Maybe, He wants them to dig a bit deeper, to see past themselves and their wants, and to start to realize that if you’re the one that’s offering to cook, one way or another you’ll always have company around the Shabbat table.