Hospitality: Commandment and Virtue
It is written, “The L-RD appeared to him in the plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of the tent in the heat of the day. He lifted his eyes and saw: And behold, three men were standing over him. He perceived, so he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground. And he said, ‘My Lord, if I find favor in Your eyes, please pass not away from Your servant’ ” (Genesis 18:1-3).
How our limited intelligence is far from grasping the meaning of such words!
1. Abraham stood before G-d, Who came to visit him on the third day after his circumcision (Bava Metzia 86b). He spoke to him, an experience that everyone hopes for and one that would make anyone extremely happy. It was precisely at that point, however, that Abraham suddenly left the Divine Presence and ran to welcome some unknown guests, wayfarers. Perhaps they were upright, or maybe wicked? Is it really proper to act in this way when one is “face to face” with the Divine Presence? Is it appropriate to leave G-d’s Presence like this?
2. The Sages draw a lesson from this: “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence, for it is written, ‘And [Abraham] said, My Lord, if I find favor in Your eyes, please pass not away from Your servant’ [Genesis 18:3]” (Shabbat 127a). How did Abraham know that hospitality is a greater commandment than welcoming the Divine Presence, and how did he realize that it was right to act as he did?
Abraham was the embodiment of kindness; that was his main character trait (Zohar III:302a), as it is written: “You grant truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham” (Micah 7:20). He had a natural tendency to run to help each and everyone, for he saw the image of G-d in all people and therefore felt that it was his duty to help and support them, without checking if they were righteous or immoral. On the contrary, if he knew that someone was sinful, he tried even harder to correct and bring him to the right path, until the image and likeness of G-d (which had left that person because of his sins) was restored to him. Abraham pushed himself to restore to each man the spirit and soul that he had abandoned, for what is the meaning of a man’s life if he does not carry G-d’s image within him or emulate godly attributes? In such a case, it is as if he were dead. Such was the magnitude of Abraham’s activities, who brought those who were far from G-d back under His protection.
We may now understand the situation. G-d visited Abraham at his home because he was ill, and it was there that G-d spoke to him. Abraham was connected to G-d and His attributes, as the Sages said concerning the verse, “After the L-RD your G-d shall you walk” (Deuteronomy 13:5): “Walk after the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He. As He clothes the naked…so you too should clothe the naked. The Holy One, blessed be He, visited the sick…so you too should visit the sick” (Sotah 14a, among others). Abraham himself did good, like G-d, and he reached such a level that on that day he became the carrier of the Divine Presence. [Note: The Ohr HaChayim, commenting on the beginning of Parsha Vayeira, states, “It seems that the Torah’s intention is to tell us that G-d made his Presence hover over Abraham and chose him to be the carrier of the Divine Presence, as the Sages have said, ‘The Patriarchs are [G-d’s] chariot’ [Bereshith Rabba 82:6], and it was then that the sacred imprint was revealed in his flesh”].
When Abraham saw those three men standing before him, he perceived the image and likeness of G-d in them, and he understood that they too needed to be connected and attached to G-d, for they also carried His image and likeness. It would have definitely been a spiritual waste for the Creator of the world to lose them if Abraham had not run to meet them and invite them under his roof, and therefore it was better to leave G-d and run to greet them, for G-d would also take pleasure in this. We may compare the situation to that of a king who was accustomed to eating fish. He was once staying far from the royal palace with his entourage, in a place where it was almost impossible to find fish. When the king was overtaken with a desire to eat some, his fisherman (who accompanied the king and his entourage) cast his line into the water while the king was sitting next to him, speaking with the fisherman while waiting for him to catch his meal. All of a sudden, the fisherman felt something biting his line. What did he do? He naturally, and even abruptly, interrupted his conversation with the king (despite the respect due to him) and promptly brought up the fish before it could escape and return to the watery depths. Of course he did this so as to fulfill the will and desire of the king, who would in no way consider the fisherman’s abrupt end to the conversation as a show of disrespect. On the contrary, in the eyes of the king the fisherman’s success was entirely for his honor, and he even deserved the king’s tremendous gratitude for having caught some fish for him, especially in that isolated region.
Such was the spiritual condition prevalent in Abraham’s time. The entire world denied the unity and existence of G-d, and no one feared Him. Only Abraham alone – “great among the great” (Zohar II:53a), who proclaimed the unity of G-d with all his heart and soul – made His Name known in the world and proclaimed Him as “G-d of heaven and earth.” Thus while G-d was speaking to Abraham, he saw three people standing before him and understood that bringing them under G-d’s protection and connecting them to Him was exactly what would please G-d. It would in no way be considered as a lack of respect toward the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He. On the contrary, the fact that Abraham succeeded in bringing three other souls under G-d’s protection would be considered as a mark of respect and homage, especially since by his good deeds he would bring them to repent and the image of G-d would be reflected on their faces. By acting in this way, Abraham behaved in accordance with G-d’s attributes, with kindness and compassion. This is why he suddenly interrupted his conversation with the King – G-d Himself – and hurried to welcome the wayfarers. In fact Abraham never left G-d, not even for a single moment, since he was running toward the Divine Presence, toward G-d’s image and likeness, in His honor and in homage to Him. Abraham knew that the very fact he went to warmly and joyfully welcome them would please G-d, since He desired that these men should return to Him and bless Him.
It seems that the commandment to demonstrate hospitality confers upon a host a double elevation: First of all, by welcoming guests, he also welcomes the Divine Presence to his home. If the Divine Presence is not very noticeable before having welcomed guests, afterwards it will become evident because the guests will also share in the knowledge of G-d and praise Him. Secondly, by the hospitality that a host demonstrates, he brings pleasure to his Creator by having clung to His attributes, by having concerned himself with the welfare of all created beings, and by having brought them material and spiritual benefits. The host therefore attains the supreme level of clinging to G-d. How happy he will be in this world and the next!
We must add another consideration concerning the greatness of the commandment to demonstrate hospitality: “For transgressions between man and the Omnipresent, the Day of Atonement procures atonement. However for transgressions between man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement does not procure atonement until he has pacified his fellow” (Yoma 85b). What must a person do if it is impossible to ask forgiveness from the one he has wronged? The sin in such a case is great, and a person must even go to the grave of the one he has wronged in order to pacify him (Yoma 87a).
Concerning this, the Talmud recounts a terrible incident concerning Nahum of Gamzu: “Once I was journeying on the road…and I had with me three donkeys, one laden with food, one with drink, and one with all kinds of dainties. A poor man met me and stopped me on the road and said to me, ‘Master, give me something to eat.’ I replied to him, ‘Wait until I have unloaded something from the donkey.’ I had hardly managed to unload something from the donkey when the man died [from hunger]. I then went and laid myself on him and exclaimed, ‘May my eyes which had no pity upon your eyes become blind; may my hands which had no pity upon your hands be cut off; may my legs which had no pity upon your legs be amputated.’ My mind was not at rest until I added, ‘May my whole body be covered with boils’ ” (Taanith 21a). That is the story in a nutshell.
The Sages have said, “It was the third day from Abraham's circumcision, and the Holy One, blessed be He, came to enquire after Abraham's health. He drew the sun out of its sheath, so that the righteous man should not be troubled with wayfarers” (Bava Metzia 86b). Hence when Abraham saw three people before him, in his mind he weighed what he should do: Should he remain before G-d, or should he leave Him and run toward the wayfarers, for it was extremely hot outside and who knows how long they had gone without eating or drinking? Perhaps their lives were even in danger.
This is why he decided to leave the Divine Presence, risking that this would be reckoned against him as an error and a sin. However because sins against G-d can be forgiven on Yom Kippur, surely this sin would be forgiven. On the other hand, if he had not run to meet those wayfarers, that would have constituted a sin against others, for which there is no forgiveness on Yom Kippur unless forgiven by them, and who knows if he would still have had the opportunity to be forgiven by these three visitors in their lifetime? Perhaps they would die before he had the time to feed them or give them something to drink, as was the case for Nahum of Gamzu. In that case, Abraham would only be able to ask them for forgiveness after their deaths. Would he then find people that would agree to accompany him to their graves? Would that not have been a crime too burdensome to bear?
This is why Abraham, who by nature was kind, merciful, and attached to G-d’s attributes (Sotah 14a), who saw a friend and a relative in each person, took it upon himself to leave G-d’s Presence, preferring to run to the wayfarers and serve them food and drink. If “the saving of life supersedes Shabbat” (Shabbat 132a), what can be said in this case? The Sages have already said, “Profane for his sake one Shabbat, so that he may keep many Shabbats” (Yoma 85b). If a person that we could have saved ends up dying, he can no longer carry out any commandments. However by saving that person’s life, we thereby give him the opportunity to serve G-d for the rest of his life. This is the reason why “Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the Divine Presence.”
We have seen here the sublime greatness of Abraham, who consistently tried by all possible means to bring joy to his Creator, to the extent that he understood that G-d wanted him at that point to go and welcome the wayfarers. Abraham loved G-d, from which it follows that he loved His created beings (see Perkei Avoth 6:1), and desired their good, as did Aaron the High Priest (ibid. 1:12). In fact Abraham earned the merit of being called “Abraham, whom I love” (Zohar I:85a, 89a). Each Jew must conduct himself according to this attribute, and in this way he will be happy in this world and the World to Come.