Parshas Vayeira: Full Service Hachnasas Orchim

This week’s parsha, Parshas Vayeira, opens with the famous visit of the three angels to the home (tent) of Avraham and Sarah.  Avraham is ninety-nine years old and healing from his bris milah (see Ch.17).  Sarah is eight-nine years old.  The angels have arrived to heal Avraham, to inform Sarah that at this time next year she will have a son, and to go on from the tent of Avraham to destroy Sodom and Amorah (Ch.19).

The opening pasuk of the parsha teaches us about bikkur cholim, visiting the sick, as G-d has come to visit Avraham on the third day post circumcision; וַיֵּרָ֤א אֵלָיו֙ הבְּאֵלֹנֵ֖י מַמְרֵ֑א וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹםand Hashem appeared to him in the plains of Mamre, and he was sitting at the entrance to his tent, like the heat of the day (Bereishis 18:1).  Rashi teaches (and see Sotah 14a): וירא אליו. לְבַקֵּר אֶת הַחוֹלֶה. אָמַר רַבִּי חָמָא בַּר חֲנִינָא, יוֹם שְׁלִישִׁי לְמִילָתוֹ הָיָה, וּבָא הַקָּבָּה וְשָׁאַל בִּשְׁלוֹמוֹAnd Hashem appeared to him: To visit the sick.  It was the third day after his circumcision (which is the day of greatest pain) and Hashem came to inquire after his welfare.  

The opening pasuk of the parsha further teaches us about hachnasas orchim, welcoming guests.  Why was Avraham sitting at the entrance to his tent?  Should he not have been resting in bed, convalescing and recuperating from his bris milah, particularly if on this day, the pain was the most intense?  

Rashi teaches: פתח האהל. לִרְאוֹת אִם יֵשׁ עוֹבֵר וָשָׁב וְיַכְנִיסֵם בְּבֵיתוֹhe was sitting at the entrance to his tent to see if there were passersby, and he would invite them into his home.  

And behold, he lifted his eyes and there were three men standing upon him!  And he ran to greet them and invited them to rest in the shade of the tree, while a sumptuous meal was prepared in their honor.  

How great is the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim?  Based on this parsha, the Sages teach (Shabbos 127a) גְּדוֹלָה הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִין מֵהַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי שְׁכִינָה, welcoming guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence, as Avraham left his visit with G-d to welcome the guests into his home.  

Our great forefather, Avraham Avinu, cared for all aspects of his guests’ needs.  In his Peninim on the Torah, Rabbi A.L. Scheinbaum teaches a beautiful chiddush (novel Torah interpretation) into Rashi’s words (as quoted above): פתח האהל. לִרְאוֹת אִם יֵשׁ עוֹבֵר וָשָׁב וְיַכְנִיסֵם בְּבֵיתוֹ.

“Rashi states that Avraham Avinu sat at the entrance of the tent in order to see אִם יֵשׁ עוֹבֵר וָשָׁב, if there were passersby, who might be going going back and forth.  Interestingly, Rashi bases his exegesis on the Medrash which uses the word ‘orchim,’ guests, in contrast to the words that Rashi selects in its stead, עוֹבֵר וָשָׁב.” 

In deviating from the lashon (text) of the Medrash, and substituting the words עוֹבֵר וָשָׁב for the lashon ha’medresh of “orchim,” what lesson can be learned from this Rashi?  Rabbi Scheinbaum answers as follows:

“Ha’Rav Mordechai ha’Kohen z’l, renders these words of Rashi homiletically.  עוֹבֵר is the root word of ‘aveirah,’ sin, and שָׁב is the root word of ‘teshuvah’, repentance.  We learn from here that inclusive in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, hospitality to wayfarers, which generally addresses their physical needs, is to care for their spiritual needs.  Avraham served his guests food, gave them water to wash, and a place to rest; but he also cared for his guests’ spiritual needs and deficiencies.  He reached out to all people, seeking to infuse them with belief in the Almighty (see Rashi to Bereishis 12:5 and 21:33).  

“Therefore, Avraham sat at the פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל, ‘entrance/opening’ of the tent.  Homiletically, this can be understood as: he attempted to find an opening, a reason to inspire the travelers, an opening to catalyze the path away from sin – עוֹבֵר – and motivate them to repentance – וָשָׁב.  Avraham sought to bring the sinner (עוֹבֵר) to the level of teshuvah (וָשָׁב).  

“Hence, Avraham Avinu performed a ‘full service’ hachnasas orchim by ministering to the spiritual, as well as physical, needs of his guests’” (Peninim on the  Torah, Eleventh Series, p.22).  

The legendary tzadekes, Mrs. Henny Machlis a’h (who passed away in Oct. 2015 at the age of 58 years old), was a world-renowned machneses orchim, who hosted hundreds of guests for the Shabbos meals each and every week.  Henny a’h was the epitome of one who understood that welcoming guests is to take care of both their physical and spiritual needs.  

“Once a woman who was a professional opera singer came for Shabbos.  She got up in the middle of the meal and wanted to sing.  A woman singing in front of men is prohibited by halacha, but to silence her would have been insulting.  Henny went over to her and calmly explained the prohibition of kol isha.  Then she added, ‘Even though you can’t sing right now, we women are very interested in hearing you.  So after the meal we will have an opera recital downstairs.  No men allowed.  We’ll close the door.  And only the women will get to enjoy you.  We really would be honored to hear you sing.’  

“Relating the story one of her daughters concluded, ‘That woman was very weird.’  Rabbi Machlis’ response to his daughter’s comment encapsulates the Machlis attitude towards every Jew: ‘What do you mean she was weird?  She was Jewish!’” (Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup, p.167).  

With this beautiful interpretation of לִרְאוֹת אִם יֵשׁ עוֹבֵר וָשָׁב, we can appreciate even further the greatness of our first forefather, Avraham, and his approach to welcoming guests.  Indeed, this is a worthy model for us all to emulate, as we strive to bring ourselves, and others, closer to Hashem. 

בברכת בשורות טובות ושבת שלום,


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