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Vayeira 5770-2009

“Hospitality at Its Finest”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the conclusion of last week’s parasha, parashat Lech Lecha, we learn that, at age 99, Abraham had undergone the painful procedure of circumcision.

As this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, opens, Abraham is sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. Lifting his eyes, he sees three men standing over him. Despite his painful condition, Abraham runs toward the men, bows down to the ground, and says to them (Genesis 18:3): “Ah’do’nay, im nah mah’tza’tee chayn b’ay’neh’chah, ahl nah tah’ah’vor may’ahl ahv’deh’chah,” My masters, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant. Abraham then suggests that water be brought so that his visitors may wash their feet and rest beneath the tree. He offers to fetch a loaf of bread, so that they may sustain themselves and then continue on their journey. After all, suggests Abraham, since they have passed by his tent, they should benefit from his hospitality.

In his tradition of saying little and doing much, Abraham runs to the tent to tell Sarah to begin baking bread and cakes. Abraham himself hurries to the herd, selects a calf and gives it to the lad who hastens to prepare it. In the interim, Abraham offers his guests cream and milk, and then serves them the calf that had been prepared, and remains standing beneath the tree as they eat.

According to the commentaries, these guests weren’t simply three strangers who happened upon Abraham and Sarah’s home. They were actually three angels, each with a separate mission. One was sent to heal Abraham, another to tell Sarah that she was going to have a child, and the third to punish Sodom. Abraham, of course, was unaware that these were special emissaries from G-d. In fact, our rabbis say that G-d wanted to relieve Abraham, who was in great pain, from having to tend to guests, so He made the sun especially strong on that day to discourage wayfarers, but, when He saw how distressed Abraham was at not having guests, He sent the three angels.

We have in the past discussed at some length the preciousness of hospitality (Vayeira 5760-1999). However, in this instance, I wish to comment on additional aspects of the great mitzvah of “Hachnassat Orchim.”

What is rather amazing about Abraham’s extraordinary hospitality is that, being in such pain, Abraham was clearly exempt from attending to guests. To the contrary, it was he who was entitled to “Bikur Cholim,” to be visited and cared for as someone who was ill. Given Abraham’s condition, Abraham’s reaction is quite remarkable. “My masters, if I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass by your servant.” He beseeches the guests to remain as if they were doing him a great favor, and that he, Abraham, would be the primary beneficiary, not they. That is why our rabbis say (Shabbat 127a) that the mitzvah of welcoming guests even supercedes welcoming the face of G-d. After all, Abraham had been speaking with G-d prior to the guests’ arrival and excused himself to attend to the visitors.

A number of the commentators ask how Abraham knew that hospitality takes priority over the Divine Presence. The Midrash Tanchumah Yashan offers the following explanation: Had one been hosting a royal guest, and the guest’s child was in need of a drink, wouldn’t the host excuse himself to take care of the child? So, Abraham concluded, I will take care of the Al-mighty’s children, and not fear that the Al-mighty will be offended.

Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Shpetivka suggests that Abraham concluded that it was obviously permissible to excuse himself from the Divine Presence, because if it were forbidden to leave the Divine Presence, there would be no need for G-d to have caused the great heat.

Over the more than 30 years that I have been a “Beginners Rabbi,” our family has been privileged to host many guests. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if, over the years, more than 10,000 guests have graced our Shabbat and holiday tables. Of course, this is not a tribute to myself, but to my wife, Aidel, and our wonderful children who shared in this mitzvah. While I usually avoid sharing personal information in these messages, I suppose once in thirty years is not too often to disclose some personal family information. Everything served on Shabbat is homemade, almost nothing is ever store bought. Except when we host large parties, we never have help serving or cleaning up. And while I do help with the shopping, setting and clearing the table, I am really no help in the kitchen.

I have little doubt that Aidel has the Al-mighty as her Divine Partner, otherwise it’s difficult to fathom how she manages to do all the hosting while fulfilling her professional commitments as a therapist and caring for our children, and now, thank G-d, for their extended and growing families, as well. The truth is, she is very organized and a very hard worker. And while her Divine Partner has given her good health and strength, He doesn’t load the dishwasher or return the dishes to the shelves, any more than her mortal partner.

There is a fascinating story written by the great Russian writer, Anton Chekhov, entitled The Bet. It concerns two men who have a difference of opinion regarding the issue of life imprisonment and capital punishment. Feeling strongly that capital punishment is often more merciful, the wealthy man makes a bet with his rival that he could not remain incarcerated for even five years. The rival, a young man aged 25, brazenly raises the stakes, asserting that he would remain in prison for 15 years in order to prove his point.

Over the years, as the young man remained in prison, the wealthy banker suffered severe financial reversals, and by year 15 is unable to pay the bet. In desperation, he decides to enter the dwelling where the prisoner is being held and end the prisoner’s life so that he won’t have to pay the two million rubles that he owes. In the wee hours of the morning, the frantic banker sneaks into the prison room only to find the prisoner totally transfixed on a letter he is writing, announcing that he intends to forfeit the bet. His plan is to escape from the confines of his prison five hours before the 15 years are up. He explains that money means nothing to him now after the 15 years of imprisonment, and that he is most grateful to have, during those years of imprisonment, met the most fascinating people, studied many languages, climbed exotic mountains, and seen the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets in the books that he had read. The education that he received during his period of incarceration was invaluable, far more valuable than any money that he would receive if he were to remain in prison for the full term.

In a similar vein, I feel that the richness that has come to our family by hosting these incredible people is equally invaluable. We have met the most interesting “characters,” and the kindest people, bonded with many, and acquired many new friends. We have heard fascinating tales from foreign countries, learned much about different cultures, and had an exchange of ideas that have at times, shocked us, dazzled us and enriched us. On top of this, we are told that we can ultimately expect to be rewarded by G-d in an extraordinary manner for this generous hospitality. The truth is, we have already been rewarded, far beyond what could be expected.

Yes, Abraham was right. He was not doing the guests a favor, the guests were doing him a far greater favor. As painful as it was for Abraham to care for the guests, and as challenging as it is for our family to prepare for the guests, it is far more rewarding to serve as the host.

This is the magic of Hachanassat Orchim, of welcoming guests. What a wonderful privilege!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to run to Fairway Market to purchase some fresh vegetables.

May you be blessed.