02 Nov 2017 Parshas Vayeira: With Dignity and Respect
As this week’s parsha, Parshas Vayeira, opens, we meet Avraham Avinu, the bechinas chessed (the chessed personality, par excellence), sitting at the opening to his tent, in the heat of the day, as he watches for passerby.
And when three men chance upon him, he runs to greet them, urging them to be his guests. He gives them water to wash, a shady place to recline, and food to eat. Even as he is in pain, three days post bris milah, at the advanced age of 99 years, Avraham does not give up a chance to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnassas orchim – welcoming guests (See Bereishis 18).
Rav Soloveitchik zt’l teaches, “Avraham’s kindness expressed itself particularly in hachnassas orchim. There are many ways to practice kindness. Why is hachnassas orchim, the mitzvah of welcoming guests, so emphasized here?
“Hachnassas orchim is often for the poor. A rich man is in no need of hospitality; he can find an inn or a place to stay. Yet hachnassas orchim differs from tzedakah, or material help to others, in a crucial way. Giving tzedakah demonstrates sympathy. Hachnassas orchim, however, demonstrates full human equality, the belief that every being has dignity and is just as important as any other. It is much easier to give someone money and send him away than to invite him under your own roof. If I invite him in, that means that no matter what his station in life, I am treating him with respect, as an equal. Hachnassas orchim is symbolic of our personal relationships, the understanding that all Jews are b’nei Melachim, princes, regardless of differences in wealth or knowledge. That is why the Torah gives us this picture of Avraham” (Abraham’s Journey, p.168-169).
Sometimes it is easy to be kind to those in need, when we meet on the street, in public, for the few minutes it takes to stop and say hello. But sometimes we feel that welcoming others into our homes is a line we would rather not cross. For our forefather, Avraham, there was no such thing.
Three dusty nomads appeared, men who worshipped the dust of their feet, And he lifted his eyes, and he saw them, וַיָּרָץ לִקְרָאתָם, and he ran to greet them (Bereishis 18:2).
Of his grandfather, R’ Chaim Brisker zt’l, R’ Soloveitchik relates, “The acts of chessed of Reb Chaim came to the fore in his residence. Notices were placed by strangers all over the walls of his anteroom. Poor people would take naps on the couch in this room. Reb Chaim would never awaken or disturb these unfortunate individuals…
“Once two Jews died in Brisk on the same day. In the morning a poor shoemaker who had lived out his life in obscurity died, while about noontime a wealthy, prominent member of the community passed away. According to the halacha (Jewish law), in such a case the one who dies first must be buried first. However, the members of the burial society, who had received a handsome sum from the heirs of the rich man, decided to attend to him first, despite the fact that he had died later, for who was there to plead the cause of the poor man?
“When Reb Chaim was informed about the incident, he sent a messenger of the court to warn the members of the burial society to desist from their disgraceful behavior. However, they refused to heed his directive and began to make arrangements for the burial of the rich man.
“Reb Chaim then arose, took his walking stick, trudged over to the house of the deceased, and chased all the attendants outside. Reb Chaim prevailed – the poor man was buried before the rich man. (As a result,) Reb Chaim’s enemies multiplied and increased.
“Thus have true halachic men always acted, for their study and their deeds have blended together beautifully, truly beautifully” (The Rav, v.1, p.236-237).
R’ Mordechai Machlis relates, “Asher was a middle aged American man who was here a lot. He was probably brilliant at some point in his life, but he had spent time in Bellevue (a hospital in NY noted for its psychiatric ward). Asher wore a towel on his head. He had the strongest stench of any person who ever came into this house. Wherever I went with him, they asked me to leave. I went with him to Shul, and they asked me to leave. I think it’s against G-d to treat someone like that. He was so hurt when people would ask him to leave.
“Henny would offer him every cologne or perfume in the house. She would let him take showers and gave him clean clothes. Henny treated him with very great dignity. It bothered Henny a lot that they threw him out of the Shul.
“It was a miracle that he didn’t make our house smell. He came to our house all the time, and nobody ever walked out because of him. That’s the miracle of our house.
“One Shabos a guy from California came to the house for the first time. He saw the crowd of people, and he didn’t know where to sit, because there are all types of people here, and he didn’t want to sit next to anyone strange. But then he saw this man with a towel on his head, so he thought that it would be safe to sit next to him, because he just got out of the shower. Little did he know who he landed next to” (Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup, S.Y.Rigler, p.74-75).
From our forefather Avraham, who epitomized the truest essence of hachnassas orchim, the Sages learn that גדולה הכנסת אורחין מהקבלת פני שכינה – Hospitality to guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence (Shabbas 127a).
For ultimately, when we give honor and respect to others, and strive to preserve the dignity of fellow man, what we are really honoring is the spark of the Divine that resides within.
בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,