Ungrateful Guests

Dear Rabbi and Susan,

It’s summer. Since we live in a lovely part of the country, this means that friends and relatives love to visit. We love to have them! But (you knew a but was coming, didn’t you?), sometimes we feel taken advantage of. For example, a woman with whom we aren’t particularly close recently visited for three days. She asked us to take her to various places, had specific food requests, and seemed to think she was at a resort hotel.

We want to teach our children to be hospitable and we know how important it is to extend ourselves for others, but after this visit we felt used and wiped out.

How do we know where to draw the line?

Monica R.

Dear Monica,

We didn’t quite get to your question in time for the summer, but there are probably desirable places for winter vacation in other parts of whatever country you are in, so we hope our answer will help others now and you next summer.

The operative teaching is:

You shall not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am the Lord.
(Leviticus 19:18)

This does not mean that whenever you relish summer by enjoying an ice cream, you must purchase one for each of your neighbors too. Neither does it mean that whenever you purchase yourself a new pair of shoes, you ought to do the same for your neighbors. What it means is that you shall treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated by him. The law of reasonableness at work. Once in a while, my neighbor might bring over an ice cream but ordinarily, when I see him and his family enjoying an Eskimo pie on a stick, I certainly do not expect him to provide me with the same delicacy. I certainly would never expect him to get me a pair of shoes when he outfits his family with new footwear.

The first two negative commandments that open the verse above help us understand. Somebody wronged you? Let it go. Don’t avenge and don’t walk around for ten years with a grudge. Get over it. Similarly, if you inadvertently wronged someone, you’d like them not to turn the occasion into a lifetime feud. In other words, think of how you’d like others to treat you.

In the same way, I will love my neighbor as myself, not in terms of doing everything for him that I do for myself, but in terms of only expecting from him as much as I’d be comfortable with him expecting from me.

Your idea of wanting to model hospitality and the importance of family and friendship to your children is, of course, spot on. There are also other important values and skills that you need to model for them. Among those are how to be a good guest and how to prioritize competing claims on your resources.

You omitted some important details of how this woman with whom you’re not particularly close came to visit you for three days. Did you invite her for a day, and she overstayed? Did she invite herself? Was there any point before she rang your doorbell at which you could have clarified expectations? Do you need a little help in learning how to graciously decline a request such as for transport or special food, a request which you yourself would never consider making of a host?

It would not be good for your children to hear you complaining about how self-centered and selfish your guest was. If they are aware of the strain that this visit put on you (and children are usually much more aware than we think they are), this is a great opportunity for them to see how to judge others favorably. An example might be, “Sandy must be going through a difficult time in her life that we don’t know about, and that didn’t leave her the emotional energy to realize that she was making unreasonable demands on our family. I hope things look up for her soon.”

Separate from this event, use this experience to remind yourselves to make sure your children know how a guest should behave. When you have a thoughtful guest, make sure to point out to your children what actions they did that you appreciate. Have them write thank you notes when they have been a guest in someone’s home. Involve them in choosing a hostess gift, helping you tidy up after you have been visitors, etc. Knowing how to be a good guest is not intuitive.

At the same time, looking to the future, you and your husband need to model how to handle conflicting demands. This is true whether you are choosing which charity requests you respond to, or what obligations you undertake for your families, schools, community, and your place of worship. It is also true for how open you make your home. Let them hear you saying that you are happy to host an event to raise funds for a good cause this month, but that next month you will not be able to help with an equally good cause because you have an unusually busy work schedule. Make sure that you include your children in decisions and choices. That is how they will learn to do the same.

It sounds like you are caring parents and are thinking hard about the messages you give your children. How fortunate they are!


Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

BONUS: This week, we are opening the comment section to all readers.
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2 thoughts on “Ungrateful Guests”

  1. Last month a friend rented a private home for a week at the beach. She invited me to join the revolving list of guests – all of whom were in their 6th, 7th, or 8th decade of life. As I helped clean the house on move-out day, leaving it as we had found it, the owners showed up and thanked us repeatedly. “ The housekeeper will have so little to do…Not all guests are as thoughtful as you ladies”. Honestly, we couldn’t imagine ignoring the list of written instructions to put out the trash, wash all the dishes/utensils and put them away clean, and after removing our personal belongings, putting all the furniture back to its original position. Simple, common sense requests. Is this unusual?

    1. So nice to hear from you, Mrs. Martinez. Yes, unfortunately I think it is becoming increasingly uncommon. Thank you for retaining the idea of common (now uncommon) courtesy.

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