“The Preciousness of Hospitality”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, opens, aged Abraham, 99 years old, is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day, recovering from his recent circumcision. According to Rashi, G-d has taken the sun out of its cloud-cover in order to discourage guests from annoying Abraham, so that he may recuperate. Abraham is much distressed by the lack of visitors, so the A-lmighty sends three people, really three angels, to Abraham’s home. According to tradition, each of the angels has been assigned an important mission. The first angel is to heal Abraham, the second is to inform Sarah that within the year she will bear a child, and the third is to destroy Sodom.

Despite his pain, when Abraham sees potential guests in the distance, he quickly runs toward them, and bowing before them, begs them not to pass by his tent without accepting his hospitality. “Wash your feet, rest against the tree, and I will bring you a little bread,” says Abraham to his guests, “Then you will continue on your journey” (Gen 18:4-5).

Instead of delivering meager refreshments as he had promised, Abraham runs to the tent, tells Sarah to whip up a multi-course meal with special breads and cakes. He himself hurries to slaughter a calf, and together with his boy, probably his son Ishmael, prepares a sumptuous repast for the guests.

The rabbis of the Talmud ask how Abraham had the temerity to suddenly bolt and run to the arriving guests, after all he was standing before the Divine Presence. An amazing principle is learned from Abraham’s actions, say the rabbis in Talmud Tractate Shavuot 35b: The mitzvah of welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence!

According to tradition, Abraham had multiple reasons for his avid pursuit of welcoming guests. Not only was he eager to provide wayfarers with lodging, (since there were no hotels in those days), but he also hoped to influence them religiously to abandon their idolatrous practices and embrace a Monotheistic Diety. The Midrash Raba says that Abraham would urge his guest to recite a blessing on the food he would give them. They would say, “What blessing shall we make?” and Abraham would respond: “Blessed be the G-d of the Universe, of whose food we have eaten.”

Despite having many servants, both Abraham and Sarah were directly involved in serving the guests. Genesis 18:7 & 8 relate: “V’el habakar ratz Avraham…Va’yiteyn lifneihem, v’hoo o’med a’leihem.” And Abraham runs to the flock… and places the food before them, and stood over them. Abraham has his entire family involved in the mitzvah. His boys serve alongside him, because, over the years, Abraham has made a special effort to provide them with a meaningful personal example of hospitality.

The contrast between Abraham’s manner of welcoming guests and Lot’s welcoming of guests in Sodom is quite stark, even though Lot had learned the mitzvah of hospitality in Abraham’s home. As we have already stated, scripture tells us that Abraham personally performed many of the preparations, scurrying around the house, and running to the flocks. Yet there is no mention of Lot hurrying or exerting himself on behalf of his guests, and, of course, Lot serves alone. There is no one to help him, because no one has been nurtured to appreciate the importance of the mitzvah of hospitality.

The story is told of the famous Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who, in his travels, came to the city of L’vov. Seeking a lodging place, he approached one of the wealthy townsmen, and, without identifying himself, asked for a place to stay. The wealthy man yelled at him angrily, “We don’t need wayfarers here. Go to a hotel.” Reb Levi Yitzchak then approached a poor Melamed (teacher), who welcomed him graciously, offering him food to eat and a place to sleep.

On the way to the poor man’s house, someone recognized Reb Levi Yitzchak as the famed Rabbi of Berditchev. Soon all the townsfolk came out to greet and see the face of the venerable Rabbi. Among them, of course, was the wealthy man, who proceeded to ask for forgiveness, and beseeched the rabbi to stay with him at his home.

In response, Reb Levi Yitzchak turned to the gathered people and said, “Do you know the difference between Abraham, our Father of blessed memory, and Lot? Why does scripture go into such detail about the full meal Abraham served the angels? After all, Lot also baked matzos and prepared a feast for his guests. Why is Abraham’s hospitality considered special and not Lot’s?” Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev answered his own question by pointing out that when the guests came to Lot, scripture states (Genesis 19:1), “Va’ya’vo’uh sh’nay ha’mal’achim S’doma,” the two angels came to Sodom. Whereas with Abraham is says, “Anashim,” “And behold he saw three people standing upon him.” Lot saw angels! Who wouldn’t accept angels into his home? Whereas Abraham saw poor wanderers, ragged, fatigued and covered with dust, in need of a placed to rest and a little food. The message to the people of L’vov was stingingly clear.

It may very well be that the message of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev is intended for us as well. It is ironic, would you not say, that in the wealthiest land in all of history, and in the wealthiest Jewish community in all of history, hospitality has become a forlorn and neglected mitzvah. Even when close friends and relatives come to our homes, they are often housed at local hotels, despite the fact that many homes have full-time maids and housekeepers who take care of everything. Before the war, in Europe, in the most impoverished shtetls, even the poorest people would go to the synagogue on Friday night and vie for the privilege of taking home an “Orach for Shabbos,” a guest for the Sabbath, whom they would welcome into their homes with kindness, love and thoughtfulness, despite having only meager black bread and herring to serve.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, in a eulogy for the Talne Rebbitzen, Rebecca Twersky, talks of her zeal for hospitality. The Rav posits that in our day and age, what we consider hospitality– welcoming guests into our homes for Shabbat– prominent lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, the best and the brightest-–is really not hospitality. Rav Soloveitchik maintains that welcoming such guests, the so-called “beautiful people,” is more an honor for the host, than a service for the guests. Hachnassat Orchim –-hospitality–says Rav Soloveitchik, is when a poor person begs for a place to sleep, just overnight, and remains for a week, or two, or three, or for a month or longer. Hospitality is when it hurts, not when it’s an honor and a pleasure.

It seems as if we need our agenda corrected and our values set straight. We can learn much from Father Abraham and Mother Sarah. “Hachnasat Orchim,” welcoming guests, is a precious mitzvah, whose preciousness we often forget.

May you be blessed.