Welcoming Guests Under the Wings of Divine Protection
It is written in this week’s Torah portion, “And the L-RD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, while he was sitting in the door of the tent in the heat of the day” (Genesis 18:1).
“That day was the third day after Abraham’s circumcision, and G-d came to visit the sick. When G-d saw that he was suffering from his circumcision, He created a great heat in order that no visitors should pass by” (Bava Metzia 86b). Abraham was known for his hospitality, since “his tent had an entrance in each of its four sides so that visitors could easily enter regardless of the direction from which they came” (Bereshith Rabba 48:9; Yalkut Meam Loez Bereshith 420). Having no visitors on that day, Abraham sent out Eliezer to find some guests, but he returned empty handed. Therefore Abraham himself went out in search of passers-by, telling Eliezer that he did not believe him because he was a slave, and “one cannot put one’s trust in slaves.”
Rabbi Yossef Seruya once said to me: “Eliezer was the faithful servant and student of Abraham. He was close to him like a son, as Abraham himself said, ‘And behold, the son of my house is my heir’ [Genesis 15:3] and ‘Eliezer drew from the Torah of his master and spread it to others’ [Yoma 25b; Pesikta Zutah; Rashi Lech Lecha 15:2]. Since Abraham had faith in his servant Eliezer for the choice of his son’s wife, a woman from whom the entire Jewish people would spring, why then, when it came to visitors, did Abraham not trust him?”
I would add to this yet another question: If it was not possible to trust Eliezer concerning guests, how is it conceivable that Eliezer drew from the Torah of his master, faithfully transmitted it to others, and taught the truth of the Torah to everyone who gathered at Abraham’s home? How could he instruct G-d’s Torah to others?
In response to these questions, one must say that Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, was his heir before Isaac’s birth. As it is written, “And the son of my house is Eliezer of Damascus … and behold, the son of my house is my heir” (Genesis 15:2,3). This means, therefore, that Eliezer was directly concerned with the inheritance. This is why Abraham had reason to suspect that Eliezer, his inheritor, did not properly look for guests, but instead let a visitor go by without inviting him. It is therefore possible to attribute to Eliezer the thought that Abraham, happy now that he was circumcised, would now – precisely because of his joy – give all that he possessed to the poor, leaving nothing for Eliezer to inherit. In order that he not be deprived of his inheritance, Eliezer therefore did not want to bring back any guests. Abraham did not trust him because he knew that he acted selfishly, which is why Abraham himself went to look for passersby.
Nevertheless, when a wife had to be found for Isaac, Abraham had faith in his servant Eliezer, knowing without any doubt that he would return with an upright woman from a good family, just as his son needed. Abraham felt this way for two reasons:
First, at that point it was no longer Eliezer who would inherit from Abraham, but Isaac, and this according to G-D’s promise: “That one will not inherit you. Only him that shall come forth from within you shall inherit you” (Genesis 15:4). Therefore, from that moment on, Isaac would be master of all he possessed and Eliezer would become Isaac’s servant, not receiving any inheritance from Abraham because “that which a slave owns belongs to his master” (Pesachim 88b). Consequently, there was no reason to suspect that Eliezer would come back with a woman for Isaac that was not suited for him, for he wanted to be able to tell Isaac that it was he that chose a wife for him, and Isaac would be grateful to him for all his life.
In addition, Eliezer said to Abraham, “Perhaps [ulai] the woman shall not wish to follow me” (Genesis 24:5), and later on, when Eliezer recounted what Abraham said to him (Genesis 24:39), he used the same word ulai, but written without the letter vav. As such, it can be read as eilai (“to me”), concerning which the Sages have said, “Eliezer had a daughter, and he wanted to give her in marriage to Isaac, yet Abraham refused. He told him, ‘My son is blessed, and you are cursed [because of the curse on Noah’s son], and the one who is cursed cannot associate with the one who is blessed’ ” (Bereshith Rabba 59:9,12). No doubt, the daughter of Eliezer was an upright woman, otherwise Eliezer would not have risked proposing her as a wife. However Abraham rejected this union, for in his eyes the daughter of Eliezer did not merit marrying Isaac and giving birth to the Jewish people. Therefore, precisely for this reason, Abraham did not think that Eliezer would come back with a woman who was ill-suited for Isaac. Eliezer himself understood that if his daughter, even though she possessed great qualities, was rejected as a choice for Isaac, he could not choose a woman for Isaac with inferior qualities. There was good reason, therefore, to believe that he would come back with a woman having exceptional qualities for the son of his master, and Abraham trusted him concerning this.
This also explains the oath that Abraham had Eliezer make to him (Genesis 24:3). Abraham asked Eliezer to take an oath, lest his eyes fail and mislead him by not allowing him to see in a woman greater qualities than his daughter possessed. He also made him take an oath in order that he search for and scrupulously verify the exceptional qualities of the woman who will merit to marry his son Isaac.
Now we have an answer to our second question. Eliezer was a pious man, and his daughter was a virtuous woman. Hence he was not thought of as being incapable of instructing his master’s Torah to others. Yet, in that which concerns hospitality, especially on that day (the third day after the circumcision), it was another story. As we know, Abraham never entrusted the task of welcoming guests to others. It was always he who personally went to welcome them, who served them, who gave them to eat and poured them to drink. He personally cared for all their needs, spiritual needs included, until the Name of G-d was known and invoked by all (Yalkut Shimoni Chayei Sarah 107; Sotah 10a).
Yet on that day only, Abraham asked his servant Eliezer to go and bring back some guests (and even if one wants to say that Abraham often sent Eliezer to find guests, he always found someone to invite). Yet G-d caused it to be tremendously hot on that day so that visitors would not disturb Abraham. When Eliezer returned alone, Abraham was so disappointed that he suspected Eliezer of fearing that his inheritance would have been distributed to the poor if he had brought any back with him. This is why Abraham did not believe Eliezer when he said that he could not find anyone to bring back. However in everything else that Eliezer did, he was an upright and faithful servant.
It is possible to say, by comparison, that this is also the meaning of hospitality. In the same way that one should not study Torah for oneself, one should also “welcome guests” and instruct them in G-d’s Torah, similar to that which is stated by the Sages: “If you have learned much Torah, do not claim special credit for yourself” (Perkei Avoth 2:8). One should do this in order to spread the knowledge of G-d to every place and to all the Children of Israel.