The Importance of The Mitzvah of Hospitality
There was once a king who loved to eat fish. In fact the king’s desire for fish was so great, he hired a professional fisherman who lived in the royal palace. This fisherman’s sole task was to catch fish for the king. One day the king traveled to a region where fish were extremely hard to find. With him were his servants, including the royal fisherman. Despite the difficulty of finding fish there, the king still had a desire to eat some. Thus he and the royal fisherman went out onto the waters. While the king was chatting with the fisherman, the latter was busy casting his nets left and right in order to catch something. At one point the fisherman felt that he had caught something big in his net, and naturally he stopped conversing with the king as he tried to bring it in. He did this, of course, for the honor of the king.
Let us think about this for a moment. Was the fact that the fisherman abruptly ended his conversation considered as a slight to the king’s honor? Obviously not. Even if the fisherman had stopped speaking with the king, this could in no way be considered as an error on his part, since his full intention was to fulfill the king’s desire for fish. It is even possible that the king was grateful to him for having caught fish in such a remote place. The same occurred with Abraham when Hashem came to visit him on the third day after his circumcision. Could there be a greater honor than this? However despite such an honor, Abraham left Hashem in the middle of His visit when wayfarers arrived, and he joyously ran to welcome them. Not only that, but he asked Hashem, “My L-rd, if I find favor in Your eyes, please pass not away from Your servant” (Genesis 18:3). In other words, wait until I have received these wayfarers. From this passage, the Sages have learned that practicing hospitality is more important than receiving the Shechinah (Shabbat 127a).
Abraham left Hashem in the middle of their conversation, yet that was in no way considered a slight to Hashem’s honor? How could that be?
Abraham lived in a godless generation. They had no faith in G-d, and Abraham was the only one in his generation to have acknowledged that Hashem ruled the entire world. Abraham realized, however, that his role was to bring those who were far from Hashem under the wings of the Shechinah. His task was to produce an ever-increasing number of believers, for that was Hashem’s will.
Consequently, when Abraham saw that wayfarers were standing before him at the entrance of his tent, he understood that his task began at that point. At that instant he had to leave everything behind and run to greet them in order to bring them closer to Hashem. Abraham was to say a kind word to them, he was to serve them, and he was to ask them to bless Hashem. It was in this way that they would understand that Hashem is the Creator and the One Who governs the world.
Yet in doing so, did Abraham not slight G-d’s honor? On the contrary, Hashem Himself rejoiced because he ran to them in order to encourage them to think!
However that was not enough, for the Torah describes in detail how Abraham received his guests. He prepared a sumptuous meal for them, even standing nearby during the entire meal to serve them. He did all this despite the fact that it was the third day after his circumcision, when the pain is the greatest (Nedarim 31b). He demonstrated the greatest devotion to this mitzvah, even though he was in a fragile state of health.
In addition, some people ask why the three angels appeared to Abraham in the form of Arabs, not otherwise. Most of the wayfarers who came to Abraham were Arabs; he was therefore always prepared with meals that Arabs typically ate. Hashem did not want to exhaust Abraham while he was still recovering, which is why He sent him wayfarers in the guise of Arabs this time as well. However Abraham did not take this into account, which is why he ran to his livestock and brought them special meals, for he wanted to fulfill the mitzvah of hospitality with all his heart and soul, with every one of his 248 limbs and 365 sinews.
From Abraham’s example we must learn the importance of the mitzvah of hospitality. Sometimes a guest arrives at our home when we are not properly prepared. Sometimes we are under financial constraints, sometimes under spiritual ones, periods when we do not function properly. Sometimes we just do not feel well or we are not in very good health, and deep down we think, “Why now? Why didn’t he come at another time?” Sometimes we just have no time to receive guests.
Nevertheless, we must understand that the mitzvah of hospitality is one between man and his fellowman, whereas welcoming the Shechinah in a mitzvah between G-d and man. Which one is more important? We know that the former are more important, as our Sages have said (Yoma 85b). Hospitality is the greater and more important of the two mitzvot.
As a result, now must learn from Abraham how to conduct ourselves and fulfill this mitzvah. We must learn how to serve guests with all our heart and soul, preparing the best for them and exerting ourselves on their behalf, even if this proves difficult. If we act in this way, we in turn will merit Hashem’s hospitality when the time comes for us to arrive in the World of Truth.