D’var Torah: Parashat Vayeira

30 Oct

Avraham is traditionally viewed as the paradigm of faith and devotion to God; great consequence is subsequently attached to his attitudes and actions throughout the book of Bereishit. As Vayeira, our parasha this week, opens, Avraham is sitting at the opening of his tent whereupon he identifies three travelers approaching. Avraham famously hurries to greet them, bows low, washes their feet, and arranges food and water for these men. Avraham and Sarah tend to the smallest detail in welcoming their newly arrived guests. Regardless of whether or not Avraham knew the true identity of his visitors, the mode in which he receives these guests remains commendable and provides a model for contemporary hospitality.

Although Bereishit 18:1-8 will remain the most significant example, the mitzva of welcoming guests is so central to Jewish identity that verses alluding to or explicitly mentioning the commandment can be located throughout the Torah. So significant is the commandment itself that the entire Jewish people are commanded in its performance. In other words, hachnasat orchim is not incumbent upon a sub-section of the population; all are responsible for the fulfillment. The gemara in Bava Metzia 86b reveals that the guests appeared to Avraham as practitioners of idol worship, an action for which Jews must die rather than transgress. The questionable religious practices of these men, whom Avraham later recognized as messengers of God, were no obstacle to the performance of this central commandment. A Jewish home must exist then with a perpetually open door, through whose threshold guests of all stripes may step.

Methodologically speaking, performing the mitzva of hachnasat orchim should be relatively simple. The Rabbinic Sages explain however that in order to properly fulfill the mitzvah, it must be fully undertaken. The home should be prepared such that an arriving guest may be comfortable, an appropriate sleeping space shall be designated, whether an office, spare bedroom, or something similar. Unsettling is a guest’s feeling upon his realization that the night will be spent in a public area of the household or on an uncomfortable folding apparatus. The host is obligated in creating a home-like atmosphere for his guests, and in this way the mitzvah itself is fulfilled.

While the centrality of the mitzva and the method of its fulfillment are established, comparisons to other mitzvot must now be drawn so as to achieve more complete understanding. Shabbat 127b provides two beautiful proofs. The gemara states that welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the presence of God, undoubtedly an incredible claim. The gemara then continues and quotes Rebbi Yohanan who equates hospitality with early arrival to the hall of study, Rav Dimi of Neharda says that hospitality is of a higher status. Seemingly there should be no higher level of divine service than accepting the presence of God and/or learning God’s Torah.  Thus the relative importance as measured against other commandments is truly revealed.

I must confess that I am an extraordinarily nervous guest. I wonder where I will sleep, whether or not I will be comfortable, the potential scenarios tumble through my mind. It is through this lens of the nervous guest that the hospitality of Avraham and Sarah takes on especially important personal meaning. I have been fortunate to be invited to stay in the homes of teachers, friends, and strangers. Their tireless endeavors, in the shadow of Avraham, ensured that I felt welcomed and comfortable, efforts that  do not go unnoticed. Personal experiences combined with the exploration of hachnasat orchim itself confirm the theological and mythological significance of Avraham’s hospitality, reinforcing his overarching paradigmatic status.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: