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Parshas Vayeira (5769)

Abraham & Sarah's Jewish Hospitality Guide

The Torah, as a rule, is very economical with its words. Even its descriptions of the lives of Abraham, Sarah, and all the other great biblical figures who shaped and molded the destiny of the Jewish people, are, for the most part, quite brief. And when the Torah wants to tell us about Abraham's punctilious performance of all of G-d's commandments, it does so in one verse: " ... Because Abraham obeyed My voice, and observed My safeguards, My commandments, My decrees, and My Torahs" (Genesis 26:5).

But for some reason, in this week's Torah portion, the Torah chooses to detail at length the hachnosas orchim, or hospitality, that Abraham and Sarah offered to the three wayfarers who passed by their tent. The Torah tells us how Abraham saw these three people from afar, and he immediately ran to greet them and to invite them in to the shade of his tent for a little bite to eat and some rest and relaxation. The Torah then relates that Abraham said to the three guests, "Let some water be brought, please, and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may nourish your heart. After, you shall pass, inasmuch as you have passed your servant's way." They said, "So shall you do, just as you have said." So Abraham hastened to the tent to Sarah and said, "Hurry! Three se'ahs [measures] of unsifted flour, sifted flour! Knead and make cakes!" Then Abraham ran to the cattle, took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the youth who hurried to prepare it. He took cream and milk and the calf which he made, and placed [these] before them; he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate (Genesis 18:4-8).

Okay, so we get the idea that Abraham and Sarah were into hospitality big-time. But, then again, they were into observing all the commandments - yet no other mitzvah they did merited specific mention while their hachnosas orchim got full coverage! And why do we need to know all the details of what Abraham and Sarah served to their guests and how they prepared it? ... Mix three se'ahs of sifted flour, knead and bake, cut into 1 1/4 inch squares, add cream and milk, serve with tender calf on bed of lettuce and portabello mushrooms .... Hey, I thought we were supposed to be the People of the Book, but this sounds more like the People of Aunt Sarah's Cookbook!

What makes this biblical episode even more difficult to understand is the amazing statement made regarding it in the Talmud in Tractate Shabbos 127a: Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name: Hachnosas Orchim (hospitality) is a greater mitzvah than having a revelation of the Shechinah (Divine Presence), for it says, [when Abraham wanted to offer hospitality to the three wayfarers, he interrupted the vision of G-d he was having and asked G-d to wait for him. Abraham said,] "My Lord, if it please you that I find favor in Your eyes, please pass not from before Your servant" (Genesis 18:3).

Would you believe that? The Sages are telling us that the mitzvah of giving food to our guests is an even greater spiritual experience than talking to G-d Himself ! How are we to understand this? I mean, imagine for a second that G-d showed up one morning in all His glory in your own backyard, and began talking to you ... would you say to Him, "Er, excuse me there, G-d, but I told Sophie Zenbacher that I would help her to set up the chairs for the New Members Welcome Brunch today at the synagogue, so I really gotta go. But I hope to talk to you soon!" How could anything be greater and more spiritual than experiencing a real live revelation of G-d's Divine Presence? We must be missing something here. There must have been something extremely special and intensely spiritual about the hachnosas orchim which Abraham and Sarah performed for their guests that would justify the Torah's singling it out from among all the other mitzvahs and describing it at length, and which would explain how these seemingly simple acts of Jewish hospitality could rival the sublime, spiritual experience of a Divine revelation.


The Chafetz Chaim explains that the reason why the Torah went in to such detail when describing Abraham and Sarah's hospitality to their guests was in order that we should learn from this how to perform hachnosas orchim the way G-d wants us to do it, and not just the way we feel like doing it. You see, there are many Jews who question the need for all the seemingly trivial, excruciating details that the Torah requires that we follow in the performance of a mitzvah. Can't we just do "good" deeds and be "good" people? Why should we have to bother with halachic technicalities and painstaking rituals - isn't the main point just that we do good deeds and "help make the world a better place"? (Don't you just love that cliché? Every time I hear it, I just feel like putting on a tie-dyed shirt, grabbing my guitar, and heading out to the commune to sing Kumbaya ...)

The truth is, however, that there is a world of difference between doing good deeds according to our own human understanding, and doing mitzvahs according to G-d's plan as outlined in His Torah. And a perfect illustration of that difference can be found in the Torah's detailed description of the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim as performed by our ancestors Abraham and Sarah to the three wayfarers who happened to be passing by their tent. Just follow along with me as we go through the story, and you will see that the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim and hospitality to guests, as commanded in the Torah and as performed by Abraham, is far greater than we would imagine it to be, and is truly a living lesson for all of us in just how to perform hachnosas orchim and other acts of chesed (kindness).


The first thing we must know is that at the time that this episode occurred, Abraham was 99 years old, and had just undergone a major surgical procedure - a "foreskindectomy" - otherwise known as circumcision. (Kids, don't try this at home!) And the Midrash tells us that G-d purposely made the sun shine intensely on that day so as not to trouble Abraham with guests. But because Abraham was so aggrieved that there were no visitors coming to whom he could offer hospitality, G-d brought the three angels to him in the form of men.

Imagine that! A 99-year-old man in great physical pain is troubled and saddened by the fact that he doesn't have the opportunity to do chesed and offer hospitality to his fellow man. Abraham's behavior here is a lesson for all of us in how to be a true ba'al chesed ("master" of kindness). It is simply not enough to wait for some poor person to come knocking on my door in search of a place to eat and sleep. Or to offer support to a friend when he asks for help. A real person of chesed actively seeks out such opportunities to perform acts of chesed and hospitality. He waits outside the synagogue to see if maybe there is a person in need of a Shabbos meal, or a place to sleep. And, by doing this, the ba'al chesed emulates G-d, Who went about creating a universe full of needy people, just so that He would be able to perform chesed and hospitality in feeding and clothing all of them.

Irving Bunim, in his commentary to Ethics of our Fathers (1:5), adds the following insight:
Yosei ben Yochanan of Jerusalem taught [how to perform the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim]: "Let your home be open wide, and let the poor be members of your household." The Hebrew word that is translated above as "wide", revachah, also denotes "profit", as in a money-making business. Now, for the authentic Jew, observance of Torah is his true, his only business. Recall how disturbed Abraham was when no guests showed up at his door until G-d sent him the three angels disguised as wayfarers. These were Abraham's "customers"; and why should he not be unhappy when "business" was so bad that day! Bearing this in mind, we can now interpret R' Yosei's teaching as follows: Let your home be open for profit-making. Your entire approach to the mitzvah of hospitality should be with the same energy, excitement and dedication with which you do your business. Let your home be open for the spiritual "profits" implicit in this mitzvah, for the divine blessings in store for those who fulfill it.

And it's not just the heads of the household who should involve themselves with this special mitzvah as if it were a profit-making business. As we read in the Torah's account of Abraham and Sarah's hospitality to the three wayfarers, the children were involved in the hachnosas orchim as well. Abraham didn't just ask Sarah to help prepare food for the hungry guests. He included his son [Yishmael] in the mitzvah. He gave his son the calf and asked him to prepare it for the guests. So that Abraham and Sarah's hospitality became a "family project".

This, too, is a valuable lesson for all of us in how to perform G-d's mitzvahs. We should turn our mitzvahs of chesed and hospitality - or any other mitzvah that we perform, for that matter - into a "family business" - something that the entire family is involved in and does together with a spirit of fun and dedication. [One great book which I highly recommend is All For The Boss by Ruchomah Shain, published by Feldheim, which tells the story of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Herman, a Torah pioneer in America in the early 1900's, who, together with his family, took upon themselves to start an "hachnosas orchim business" in their home. Each week, the Herman family graciously opened their home to anyone who wanted a hot Shabbos meal, and a warm bed in which to sleep. Over the years, Rabbi Herman's "orchim business", as well as the many other great, spiritual accomplishments which he carried out according to the wishes of the Almighty - whom Rabbi Herman referred to simply as "The Boss" - became legendary. This fascinating book can be found at your local bookstore.]


The Torah then proceeds to tell us that Abraham offered the three guests some water with which to wash their feet, before he sat them down at his table to eat the meal. He realized that they were tired and worn out from their long journey in the desert, and would probably appreciate some cool water as soon as they entered the tent, before they started to eat.

And the lesson here is that when guests come to our home, we should take the time to think of everything that they might need in order to make them feel comfortable and relaxed. My wife always remembers to pour a tall glass of refreshing, ice cold water for any guest who walks home with us for a Shabbos meal in the hot summer months, as soon as they enter the house. It's not just the fancy meal that we offer our guests that is important, but also all the little things we can do for them that really show how much we care about them.

The next thing Abraham did is very interesting. First he told his guests, "I will fetch a morsel of bread so that you can nourish yourselves, after that, you can go on your way". But the next thing you know, Abraham and Sarah ran around like crazy preparing a six-course meal for their guests, with a tender calf, and a big dessert, etc. What's going on here?

The commentaries explain that Abraham's behavior showed a tremendous sensitivity to the needs and feelings of his guests. How many times have we had guests in our home who have felt a little embarrassed and hesitant to make us prepare a full meal for them. "It's alright, I'm not really hungry. Please don't trouble yourselves to cook a big meal for me". Meanwhile, our guest is no doubt starving and would probably eat triples of everything you're serving - but he just doesn't feel right about making you do all that preparation and cooking for him. Abraham, who was supersensitive to his guest's needs, realized that they might hesitate to eat a full meal, and therefore told them, "Sit down and have a little bread. It's no trouble at all. And then you'll be on your way." This was an offer they couldn't refuse. And while the guests sat down at the table, relaxed and comfortable, Abraham and Sarah ran to the kitchen to prepare them a huge meal, which they then offered to their guests. It is just this kind of sensitivity which separates the men from the boys, and which places the Torah's version of hachnosas orchim in a league of its own.

A story is told about the legendary hospitality and amazing sensitivity of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the great tzaddik (righteous person) and spiritual leader of early-20th century Jewry in the Holy Land. One Passover, some guests from outside of the Holy Land came to visit Jerusalem, and asked to join Rabbi Sonnenfeld and his family for the Passover festival. He graciously agreed to their request, and brought them to his home. Just to be cordial, the guests offered the Rabbi some money to help defray the huge expenses of hosting the Passover Seder, and, much to their surprise, he immediately accepted their offer. They promptly gave his wife, the Rebbetzin, 5 liras sterling, and they settled into their rooms. It was on the first day of Chol Ha'moed (the Intermediate Days of the Festival) when the guests were about to leave, that Rabbi Sonnenfeld suddenly appeared at the door to their room with the 5 liras sterling which they had originally given him, and he placed it on the table in front of them. The guests were both surprised and confused. They had thought that the Rabbi had willingly accepted their offer to pay for part of the food that they would be eating at his home, and here he was, returning all their money to them, unused. Rabbi Sonnenfeld explained his strange behavior to them. He said, "When you offered to pay for your meals, I realized that you didn't feel good about taking other people's food for free, and I knew that you would have limited how much of my food you were going to eat, thus not being able to enjoy the holiday meals. I therefore allowed you to give me the money, which in turn enabled you to eat to your hearts' content, thinking, as you were, that you were paying for part of it. But now that you have completed your stay at my home and are preparing to leave, I am returning your money, as I had no intention whatsoever of actually taking money from you in exchange for the tremendous opportunity to perform the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim!"


The Torah continues to tell us how Abraham ran to Sarah to ask her to bake a cake for the guests, and then he ran to the cattle to get a calf to serve as a main course. (Pretty good for a guy who has almost hit the big 1-0-0, isn't it!) The Midrash tells us that he actually took three bulls in order to feed the guests three tongues in mustard, considered at that time to be a great delicacy. Abraham then placed all the food which he and Sarah had prepared in front of the three guests, and, as the Torah relates in verse 8, "he stood over them beneath the tree and they ate", tending to their every need and desire. "Abraham, pass the Ketchup there, will you please?"

Wow! I don't know if you realize how amazing this is, but think about it for a second. Here we have three Arab-looking wayfarers who have come in to Abraham's tent for some food and a little rest, and Abraham, the then world-famous, fabulously wealthy, distinguished philosopher and sainted tzaddik is running around slaughtering bulls, preparing mustard-flavored tongues and chocolate cakes, and standing over these three strangers whom he had never seen before, waiting to tend to whatever they ask for at the drop of a hat! Amazing! And that's not all! The Torah tells us a little further on in the weekly portion that Abraham planted an eishel, a tree in Be'er Sheva, and there he proclaimed the Name of G-d. (See Genesis 21:33) Now there has got to be more to this eishel than meets the eye. After all, of what importance is it to us that Abraham planted a tree in Be'er Sheva? I bet he also weeded his garden when he lived in Hebron - but the Torah doesn't bother to tell us about that!

The Midrash tells us that the word eishel (which comprises the three Hebrew letters alef, shin, lamed) is actually an acronym for the three things that Abraham and Sarah provided for the many guests who entered their tent - achilah (food), shetiyah (drink), and levayah (escort upon leaving). In other words, Abraham and Sarah didn't just satisfy themselves with taking care of the needs of their guests by giving them food and drink and a place to relax - they also made sure to personally escort each and every one of their guests until they reached the outskirts of the city. This is indicated by the verse in Chapter 18 verse 16, in which we are told that as the guests got up to leave, "Abraham walked with them to send them off". [Today, for some reason, the mitzvah of levayah, escorting our guests to the city limits, has been sadly neglected. The Halachic authorities write that one should at least escort his guest 4 cubits (about 7 feet) outside the house, thus showing the guest that he would love to accompany him and form a bond with him, if it were possible.]

The Talmud teaches us that greater is the reward for escorting the guests than for giving them food and drink. We have to ask ourselves, what is so great about escorting our guests that makes it even more of a mitzvah than the hospitality that we show them by feeding them and giving them a bed to sleep in?

I believe that the answer to this question will also shed light on the difficult statement made by the Sages which we questioned earlier - that the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim is greater than experiencing a Divine revelation and talking to G-d Himself - and will help us to appreciate the greatness and unique quality of performing mitzvahs the way G-d wants us to do them versus just doing good deeds and being a "good person".


Rabbi Dovid Kronglass, of blessed memory, explained that when we offer a guest food and drink, we are benefiting him by fulfilling his needs. But when we escort him and accompany him for part of his journey, we are honoring the person himself. In essence, when we escort a guest, we are making a statement to him that we wish we could accompany him on his trip, to be together with him, as we respect him for who he is - a tzelem elokim, a person who was created in the image of G-d - regardless of his relative stature in this world. In fact, the Hebrew word for escort, levayah, comes from the word leevoy, which means bonding and attachment. By offering a friend or even a total stranger food and drink, and then escorting him for part of his journey, we show him that we value him and care for him, not just for his empty stomach. And the very act of honoring the guest, even when we are not fulfilling any of his personal needs, reflects our perception of this individual as a tzelem elokim, worthy of honor and respect because of the G-dliness in him.

Moreover, as was shown earlier, all the many details, as well as the great sensitivity towards the guests, which the Torah requires of one who is performing the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim, are there for only one purpose - to refine our character and to bring out the G-dly nature within us. So that if we were to witness the kind of hachnosas orchim which Abraham and Sarah practiced for all the guests who entered their tent - we would actually be experiencing a Divine revelation right here on earth! The amazing sensitivity and love and respect and honor which that First Couple of Judaism showed to each and every person who passed their way could only be the result of their recognition of the Divine aspect - the tzelem elokim - of each individual, and was a manifestation of their own G-dlike greatness and refinement of character.

This, I believe, was the import of the Sages' statement that the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim is even greater than experiencing a Divine revelation from Heaven. What the Sages are teaching us is that although it is definitely very "holy" and "spiritual" to witness the Shechinah (Divine Presence) up above in all its glory, the main point of our being put on this earth and of all the mitzvahs that we are asked by G-d to perform is to bring G-dliness and His Divine Presence down here in this world. And each time we do a mitzvah like hachnosas orchim the way G-d wants us to do it - paying close attention to all the excruciating details of the mitzvah which reflect great sensitivity and kindness and an appreciation of our guests’ Divine likeness - we are perfecting and refining our character to be more G-dlike, thus effectively manifesting G-d's Divine Presence right here on earth. And the more we refine our characters and the more we bring out the G-dliness and uniqueness of ourselves and of all those who are around us, the more we truly make the world a better place!

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