Latte being poured artfully.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Back of the House

Will the "Great Resignation" and this week's Torah portion, Vayera, remind us to value less visible workers?

People have had enough. In the month of August, a full 3% of American workers left their jobs. The “Great Resignation” continues, and the hardest hit industries? Food and hospitality. After 18 long months of pandemic that made it nearly impossible for many restaurants, hotels and travel businesses to survive, and a marked increase in horrific patron behavior, it’s no wonder workers are exhausted. So often, we spend our energy praising the product — the excellent presentation of a dish, the mints on the pillows, the relative convenience of TSA Pre-Check — and neglect direct appreciation for the workers that make such services possible. 

Hospitality workers put up with far more than anyone should have to. Last month, when NYC received the most rain ever recorded in a single day, social media filled with videos of bike deliverers fording waist-high waters — literally risking their lives to bring meals to fellow New Yorkers. And it seems that barely a week goes by without a news story about an unruly customer verbally or physically assaulting a server, flight attendant or cashier. Are we really surprised these workers are quitting in droves? 

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we witness the first (canonized) dinner party. Three men pay a visit to Abraham’s tent. Though often understood as angels, these visitors have human bodies: feet that can be washed (Genesis 18:4) and hungry mouths that can be fed (18:8). Abraham plays the perfect host, stopping the men as they pass by and swiftly arranging for cakes of choice flour, milk, curds and veal. (This visit predates the Jewish practice of separating meat and milk, although if you ask the commentators they’ll explain that the visitors were careful not to consume both.) Abraham is lauded for his hospitality, and the messengers leave him with the promise that in a year’s time Sarah, his post-menopausal (one might even say elderly) wife, will bear a son. 

Throughout this encounter, Abraham serves as “front of house” staff, sitting and eating with the messengers and attending to their needs. The servant boy, tasked with preparing the calf, and Sarah, tasked with the kneading and cooking of cakes, seemingly have no direct interaction with these messengers at all. Sarah stands by the door of the tent, listening in and laughing when she hears the prediction of her son’s birth. The servant boy seemingly makes himself scarce once done preparing the veal. 

When people talk about this passage, the usual narrative is that Abraham exhibited the epitome of hospitality, and there’s truth to that. Abraham went out of his way to greet the messengers, to welcome them into his tent, to offer them refreshment. But what about the “back of house” staff? Do we give adequate credit to the servant who prepared the calf and Sarah who kneaded the bread? Could Abraham have so beautifully played host and served such a sumptuous feast to his guests if not for the other hospitality staff in his home? 

When I worked as a barista before rabbinical school, my colleagues and I knew well the difference between “good customers” and “bad customers”: Good customers treated us as fully human. Throughout my time slinging lattes, I encountered many customers who saw me as a person and many others who saw me as a talking machine able to make froth and change. I particularly remember the difference in the way I was treated by customers when I was on register, directly interacting with them, versus when I was trying to negotiate a mop around a table or pick up abandoned paper cups from the floor. It was nice to be thanked when I took someone’s order, but that was to be expected from polite, Northern California customers. It was special to be thanked by someone when I was cleaning — when I was doing the work most folks forget has to be done. 

In the Torah, Sarah and the servant — and perhaps many other unnamed characters — were doing the work that most folks forget has to be done. Abraham was doing the work people saw. When the messengers left Abraham’s tent, did they turn to Sarah at the door and the servant outside to offer a word of gratitude, or ask for the recipe for her choice flour cakes? Did Abraham himself extend his good manners to his wife and the servant and thank them for their labor? It would be lovely to think that these divine messengers, and Abraham, the patriarch renowned for hospitality, did just that. But the Torah leaves it mysterious. 

There are many ways to show gratitude when others serve us, from proper tips to thank you notes. These expressions of thanks are just as essential as “back of house” workers themselves. After 18 months of pandemic, when we’ve been taught by necessity to be wary of our fellow humans, perhaps some of us have forgotten how to connect. So may we be like Abraham, embodying generosity at every opportunity, and may we also take it a step beyond his (canonized) hospitality to thank each person who helps us along our way.

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