Honing Hospitality

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of Naaleh.com

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Avraham Avinu had undergone his bris milah three days earlier. One would expect him to be resting and recuperating. Instead, he was sitting in the opening of his tent hoping to greet some wayfarers and extend them hospitality. Knowing that Avraham must be in pain, Hakodosh Boruch Hu stops by to visit. Just then, Avraham sees three Arabs coming down the road. Avraham is determined to provide hospitality, so he turns and pleads, “My Lord/lord, do not to pass away from me,” and he runs to provide all he can for these travelers, work that will be intense and time consuming.

Our commentators are all concerned with one question: Hashem had come directly to Avraham; how could Avraham leave God’s sacred presence to tend to these idol worshipers? Was this not a disgrace to Hashem’s honor? It is specifically from this event that our Sages state that the mitzvah of hospitality is so great that it even supersedes greeting the Divine Presence. But can we deduce that therefore every mitzvah performance takes precedence over greeting the Divine Presence, or is it only hospitality? After all, the goal of mitzvah performance is to form a connection to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. It would seem that Avraham had now already reached that goal, writes Rabbi Mintzberg in Ben Melech. However, that ultimate goal is to be achieved in olam habo/the next world. In this world we must continue to act. As long as we are alive, we must continue to perform mitzvoth, for that is how we greet the Divine Presence in this world, adds Daas Torah. When we realize this fact, adds Rabbi Goldstein, we begin to appreciate every opportunity to do a mitzvah, for these opportunities will no longer be available to us in the next world. 

The streets are lined with mitzvoth if we but open our eyes to see, writes Rabbi Wolbe. And it is not how important or minor we perceive a mitzvah to be, but that we train ourselves by doing more and more “small” mitzvoth to develop a mitzvah mentality. Each mitzvah brings down some of Hashem’s presence, whether one is asking a confused stranger if he needs some help or giving a small donation to tzedakah. Just as nature, to be productive, must follow the rules Hashem set, so must we perform the mitzvoth as Hashem intended, with intent and love, in order to bring down His Presence.

While Hashem came to Avraham to “visit the sick” after Avraham’s circumcision, Avraham wanted to earn Hashem’s presence through his own effort in performing a mitzvah rather than through Hashem’s kindness, writes Rav Scheinerman in Ohel Moshe, for the mitzvah itself would bring down Hashem’s presence. It is said similarly of the Vilna Gaon that, although an angel offered to teach the Gaon the entire Torah through Divine revelation, the Vilna Gaon refused the offer, preferring to gain Torah wisdom through his own effort and study. With this perspective, we can understand that leaving Hashem’s presence to work on a mitzvah was not at all disrespectful to Hashem. We can also see from this episode that when one is involved in performing one mitzvah, he is exempt from performing another mitzvah, continues Rabbi Scheinerman. After all, you are already bringing down Hashem’s presence with the current mitzvah.

Rabbi Scheinerman notes that the word mitzvah is related to a word meaning connection. Mitzvah performance surrounds us with an aura of God’s presence, as we testify with the blessing that introduces so many of our mitzvoth: “He has sanctified us through His mitzvoth…” Let us therefore strive to give every mitzvah the reverence it deserves.

While we understand this connection through the teachings of our Sages and through our tradition, how did Avraham Avinu arrive at this understanding?

Avraham knew his mission was to spread belief in and closeness to Hashem among the people. However, now having been circumcised, he was different from others not only philosophically and spiritually, but also physically. Avraham was afraid that this difference would keep others away from him, thus making it impossible for him to communicate with others and actualize his mission, writes Rabbi Miller in Shabbat Shiurim. So, Hashem sent him these strangers to raise Avraham’s spirits, to show Avraham that he could still communicate his message to others.

While Avraham was sitting, Hashem (so to speak) was standing nearby, teaching Avraham that although God is always present in a Jewish court of law, the judges are nevertheless seated, giving their full attention to rendering proper judgment and not being distracted by the awe of God’s presence. Hashem’s presence among us, as awesome as it is, is not meant to distract us from proper performance of mitzvoth. Avraham thus understood that he was not disrespecting Hashem by going out to perform one of His mitzvoth, even while Hakodosh boruch Hu was actually standing by in his presence.

From a different but beautiful perspective, Rabbi Scheinerman quotes Rav Shach, who notes that since every human being was created in God’s image, we are not disrespecting God when we do acts of chesed to another, but respecting His image within the other human being and further honoring Hashem by emulating Hashem’s chesed to us, following in His ways. In fact, adds Rabbi Beyfus, the obligation to emulate Hashem is a continuous obligation, and we are not putting Hashem on hold, but clinging to Him. In fact, adds Rav Aaron Kotler, because we ourselves are created in God’s image, we must emulate Him. Just as the world was created through Hashem’s chesed, so must we continue to uphold the world through continuing acts of chesed. As is stated in Tehillim, “Olam chesed yiboneh/The world was created [and will continue to be created] through chesed.” When we perform acts of chesed, we are actualizing the image of God within ourselves. When Avraham Avinu was greeting these guests, he was emulating Hashem and creating an even closer connection to Hashem.

In Einei Yisroel, Rabbi Belsky notes that Hashem appeared to Avraham Avinu specifically through an act of chesed, to inquire after Avraham’s health after his circumcision. Hashem showed Avraham Avinu that Hashem was personally involved with him as an individual. This appearance taught Avraham that we bring Hashem’s presence to the world through our acts of chesed. Every time Avraham extended hospitality, he would bring recognition of Hashem to his guests’ consciousness. He would impress upon them that everything he offered them was actually not his, but gifts from Hashem Himself.

Rabbi Belsky cites the Chovos Halevovos in recognizing three different levels of chesed. First, there is universal chesed that Hashem extends to every living creature from conception on. Then Hashem extends national chesed to the Jewish people through continuous miracles beginning with our redemption from Egypt. Finally, Hashem provides individual kindness, providing for each of us according to our personal needs. Avraham Avinu reflected all these levels. He brought others closer to Hashem’s existed, he taught his household Hashem’s ways, and he showed his concern for each individual.

We would think that when Hashem talks to us, we have attained the greatest connection to Him. The reality, however, writes Rabbi Scheinerman, is that the greatest connection occurs when we interact with others. This was the reality of Avraham’s existence. Avraham kept Lot with him for so many years even though during all that time Hashem did not speak to him.

After his bris, Avraham became a human receptacle of Divine holiness writes the Tosher Rebbe. That’s why Hashem initially kept impure people away from him. But Avraham was extremely distressed. He wanted to bring other people closer to Hashem. By bringing others to recognize Hashem through being the emissary of Hashem’s chesed, he would be coronating Hashem as King. When one can bring others to recognize their Creator as King, one is increasing Hashem’s presence in the world. That’s why one can take time from one’s personal spiritual activities for the mitzvah of bringing others closer to Hashem. However, Chochmat Hamatzpun posts a caveat that you can take time from your personal spiritual growth when no one else can perform that task.

The Ner Uziel, Rabbi Milevsky, expands on this idea. After his circumcision, Avraham’s bond with Hakodosh boruch Hu intensified as he sensed Hashem’s presence most keenly, basking in the joy of Hashem’s presence. However, when the three strangers appeared, Avraham knew that the right thing to do was to care for these individuals. Avraham understood that it was more important to do that which was right than to do that which felt good. Avraham understood that one’s relationship with his fellow man is not separate from, but an integral part of his relationship to God.

With Avraham’s heightened spiritual sensibility, he would see only that which was relevant to his spiritual growth, as he “saw” Hashem beside him, adds the Bobover Rebbe, the Kedushas Zion. If Avraham saw the men approaching, surely Hashem meant for him to approach them and offer them hospitality. Avraham understood that Hashem was teaching him how important it was to care for these Arabs, and by extension, for others.

Was Avraham leaving Hashem to tend to these travelers? Rav Dovid Hofstedter doesn’t think so. In Drash Dovid, he notes that before Avraham’s bris, Hashem appeared to him only to give him specific instructions. After the bris, however, Hashem came to stay, as if Avraham’s tent was His abode on earth, the Mishkan/Tabernacle. When Avraham arose and went out to greet these men, he was not leaving Hashem behind, but was actually taking Hashem with him, since Hashem’s presence was constantly surrounding him. When one leaves the Beis Medrash one must not leave Hashem behind, but one must take Hashem with him, notes the Tiferes Shimshon. Avraham did not go to do this mitzvah alone, but brought Hashem with him as if it were a conference call between all the participants. This is what Avraham meant, posits the Netivot Shalom, when Avraham asks, “Please don’t pass away from me;” Avraham is asking Hashem to remain with him constantly, throughout his life.

The Oshover Rebbe, citing the Shla”h Hakadosh, offers a profound insight into Avraham’s motivation to perform this mitzvah, and indeed into the mitzvah of hachnosat orchim in general. Avraham Avinu was having a tremendously elevated experience with Hashem. Avraham felt a danger that he would become haughty as a result. Taking care of guests in the most mundane ways, washing their feet for example, would remind him that he himself was merely a guest in Hashem’s house, living in Hashem’s world through Hashem’s chesed. In fact, this is truly the lesson for all of us. We are all guests of Hashem, and the best way to feel the love and concern of our Host is to emulate His graciousness and love, and extend chesed to all who were created in His image. Avraham Avinu personified this ideal, and we, his descendants, are meant to follow his example in our lives.