Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 8 May 2021 / 26 Iyar 5781

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 5)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

To Believe Is to Behave (Part 5)
(Lailah Gifty Akita)

“These are the precepts whose fruits a person enjoys in this world, but whose principal remains intact in the World to Come. They are: honoring one’s parents; acts of kindness; early arrival at the study hall in the morning and the evening; hosting guests; visiting the sick; providing the wherewithal for a bride to marry; escorting the dead; praying with concentration; making peace between two people; and Torah study is the equivalent of them all.” (Tractate Shabbat 127a)

The fourth mitzvah is hosting guests. There is an astonishing statement that appears twice in the Talmud (Tractates Shabbat 127a and Shavuot 35b), that having guests is even greater than being in the company of the Divine Presence. Our Sages learn this monumental lesson from the actions of our forefather Avraham. The Torah relates (in Genesis 18) how Avraham took temporary leave of the Divine Presence in order to serve three wayfarers who were passing by. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that hurrying away from the Divine Presence was not a disrespectful thing for Avraham to do, because by serving G-d’s creations he was actually serving G-d. Nevertheless, this statement of our Sages “that having guests is of greater importance than hosting the Divine Presence” requires additional clarification.

Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein (1855-1926), the second Rebbi of Sochatchov, whose multi-volume masterpiece on the Torah and Chassidic thought called Shem Mishmuel is still avidly studied today, writes that Avraham had never received such a sublime revelation before as he did now when he stood before the Divine Presence. And it was clear to him just how precious it was. In fact, it is impossible to imagine an otherworldly delight that might be greater than the one he was experiencing at that moment. And yet, in order to perform the mitzvah of hosting guests, Avraham immediately chose to disregard his own personal, infinite pleasure, in order to tend to the needs of three strangers. Why would he do such a thing? Because Avraham understood that the absolute purpose of the trait of kindness is to ignore one’s own needs and to think of others.

Fascinatingly enough, our Sages mention a seemingly insignificant detail in Tractate Bava Metzia 86b. They teach that during the meal that he prepared for them, Avraham served his guests tongue cooked in mustard. Rabbi Avraham Pam (1913-2001), the beloved head of the Torah Vedaath Yeshivah in New York and one of the most influential Torah leaders in America in the previous century, asks an intriguing question. Avraham was a spiritual person whose entire being was dedicated to serving G-d. It was his entire weltanschauung. If so, why was there something as mundane as mustard in his spice cabinet? How could mustard possibly have enhanced Avraham’s connection to G-d? Rabbi Pam answers that the mustard was not for Avraham. Avraham was not interested in condiments. But Avraham was the host par excellence and he knew that his guests might very well enjoy mustard — and for that reason alone it was worthwhile having mustard on hand. Just in case.

Actually, so important is the mitzvah that our Sages teach (Tractate Sanhedrin 103b) that the reward earned for hosting guests and feeding the hungry is truly exceptional because G-d “turns a blind eye” to the person’s bad deeds. As Rashi explains, “G-d does not look at his sins. G-d ‘pretends’ not to see his actions.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin, one of the outstanding Torah luminaries of the nineteenth century and who served as the Rabbi in some of the most prestigious communities in Eastern Europe and, at the end of his life, in Jerusalem, was known to excel in the mitzvah of hosting guests. Once, while he was seemingly completely engrossed in learning Torah, he suddenly put down the volume of Talmud that he was studying, and went over to one of his elderly guests in order to help him take the soft parts of the challah out of the crust. Being familiar with his legendary concentration for Torah thoughts, his students asked him how he could have realized that there was someone at the table who needed assistance when he was so totally absorbed in his studies. In the quintessentially Jewish way, Rabbi Diskin answered with a question of his own. “When G-d was speaking with Avraham, how did Avraham realize that three guests had arrived?” Rabbi Diskin then answered his own question by telling them that when you are steadfast in the performance of a particular mitzvah, you can be speaking with G-d, or learning Torah, or completely involved in something else, but when the opportunity to do that mitzvah arrives — you will just know.

To be continued…

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