This week’s parshah is Parshat Vayeira. It teaches the message of inclusion. In this week’s parshah, Avraham and Sarah welcome three guests into their home. Avraham runs out to greet them, and Avraham and Sarah work together to prepare a meal for them. The mitzvah of הכנסת אורחים (hakhnasat orkhim) – “welcoming guests” is a mitzvah we take very seriously. Each year at this time I send a similar message, as the middah to “be welcoming” is central to our philosophy at Heschel.
We strive to welcome others into our play and our games. At Heschel we have a rule of thumb on the playground which says, “You can’t say, you can’t play!” We find ways to make sure that our friends and classmates feel included. We take extra care to not exclude people because of their gender, their choice of clothing, hairstyles, their way of speaking, or anything unique about themselves.
We are fortunate to have a parent-body that works hard to reinforce these messages at home. Parents have asked what makes a successful social environment in the class. While no single factor alone can account for a positive class culture, we have noticed over the years that the most successful classes from a social perspective are created when people feel included. Social inclusion creates social cohesion. Social exclusion leads to hurt feelings and barriers that are hard to cross. This applies not only to our children but to parents as well. Nobody likes to feel left out.
Our school is a tight-knit community, and the social dynamics of the class depend a great deal on what goes on outside of the classroom walls. When it comes to social inclusion the question of class parties often comes up. On this matter I refer to a rule of etiquette I was taught: when putting together an invitation list use the onion layer rule — everyone from a particular social “layer” needs to be invited. The key is that no single individual or individuals are left wondering why they weren’t invited.
Children notice social exclusion from a very young age. What we as adults may be able to rationalize, children take to heart, remember, and feel strongly. Designing social events that are inclusive takes extra thought and may require some compromises on our initial vision. But when we look at the big picture, we realize that being inclusive has long-term implications for our relationships and our community. According to a verse in the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59a), all the gates of appeal to heaven are locked, except for gate of hurt feelings due to exclusion. When we observe the mitzvah of הכנסת אורחים, and the middah of being welcoming, we are inclusive and enter into the realm of the Holy.