I recall a Shabbat a few years ago, when my family were the recipients of great hospitality in the home of a family we had never met before, and their 10 children. They opened up their home to us; their children switched beds to make room for us; and they gave us a key so we could come and go as we pleased. When it came time for us to leave and make the 20 minute drive home, they insisted on providing us with care packages, complete with homemade muffins, apples and a bottle of seltzer. At first I tried to refuse, claiming that the trip home was so short that I didn’t think we would need the provisions, but eventually I saw that my refusal was useless, so I gave in and took the bag of supplies.
The kids ran outside to accompany us to our car, they profusely thanked us for coming, and firmly requested that we come again – anytime!
Being that in this week’s Torah portion we read of Abraham’s heroic hospitality, I thought it only fitting that I write about that topic.
In parshat Vayeira (beginning of Genesis ch.18) we read:
“G-d appeared to [Abraham] in the plains of Mamre, while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. He looked around and saw – look! – three men were standing in front of him. He ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself on the ground. He said, ‘My lords! If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not go away from your servant.’”
The Talmud teaches us that these men were in fact angels, namely, Michael, Gabriel and Rafael and they did not eat (Bava Metzia 86b). Furthermore, this event took place on the third day after Abraham’s circumcision, and G-d did not want to bother Abraham with guests, thus, He caused it to be exceedingly hot (“in the heat of the day”), so that no guests would arrive.
However, G-d senses that Abraham was more pained by the lack of guests that by the recovery from his circumcision, and He therefore sent guests – the three angels.
When Abraham noticed the guests approaching his tent, he was in the middle of a Divine communication (“G-d appeared to Abraham”), yet he nevertheless, put his communication with G-d on hold, in order to service these guests. Because of this event, Rabbi Yehudah teaches us that, “Welcoming guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence” (Talmud Shabbat 127a).
It is perplexing to note that the source for this powerful statement that welcoming guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence is, essentially, a non-event. After all, the guests were not human, and they did not even partake of the food that was so carefully prepared!
What type of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests) did Abraham accomplish? It seems that Abraham did not fulfill the mitzvah of welcoming guests at all, for the said guests did not need what he had to offer! Furthermore, it seems that Abraham interrupted his Divine communication for what was, seemingly, a waste of time!
Yet, in fact, the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim is something that needs to be defined. We can look at it in two ways: 1. The focus is on the recipient; or 2. The focus is on the host.
Although one might think that the main aspect of this mitzvah is the recipient, in fact, the central point is the attention that the host provides the guest. After all, one may offer delicious delicacies to a guest, yet one cannot be sure that the guest will accept them.
Thus, we may say that in fact Abraham did fulfill the commandment of welcoming guests, for even though the angels did not need the food, yet he nevertheless exhibited the necessary qualities of being a good host.
In this mitzvah of hachnasat orchim, the primary focus is not the benefit of the guests, but rather, the goodwill exhibited by the host. By welcoming guests into our home, we can emulate and follow in the footsteps of our great forebear, Abraham.