Hachnasat orchim, welcoming visitors, is one of my family’s favorite commandments. We very much enjoy welcoming visitors; this week we are hosting a visiting volunteer dentist and his wife from the US, and some supporters of Rabbis for Human Rights. We’ve had Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, students, professors, rabbis, business people, teachers, from all over the world. Our tradition teaches it is one of the most important commandments. It is a true expression of gemilut chesed, of lovingkindness. We can learn something about welcoming visitors from Abraham’s nephew, Lot. In this week’s parsha we are told the story of how Lot welcomed some visitors to his home:
1. Two angels (malachim) came to Sodom at evening; and Lot sat in the gate of Sodom; and Lot seeing them, rose up to meet them; and he bowed himself with his face to the ground; 2. And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I beseech you, to your servant’s house, and remain all night, and wash your feet, and you shall rise up early, and go on your way. And they said, No; we will stay in the street all night. 3. And he pressed upon them greatly; and they turned in to him, and entered into his house; and he made them a feast, and baked unleavened bread, and they ate.
There are a lot of different lessons we can learn from Lot’s behavior. Lot was polite, rising for guests and bowing to greet them. The Talmud tells us when we see someone we should rush to greet him first, because it is written “seek peace and pursue it.” The way we pursue peace is by being the first to say shalom, peace—by being the first to offer greetings. Lot modeled this behavior for us.
Lot was sincere in his offer. How often do people say “let’s do lunch sometime” and they don’t really mean it and never actually call to make an appointment. Hachnasat orchim means to be really welcoming. You have not truly welcomed a guest if you make a half-hearted insincere offer. Lot repeated his offer, so that the guests would know he really meant it, the offer was not just for form.
Lot was sensitive to his guests needs. They must have seemed busy, their initial rejection probably suggested they had other things to attend to. So Lot suggested that they should “rise up early, and go on your way.”
Lot fed them well. The reference to “unleavened bread,” matza, in the feast that Lot provided does not indicate stinginess on Lot’s part—if you have unexpected guests show up, you wouldn’t have time for bread to rise. So you make matza.
However, as you may know, the model the rabbis have used for learning hospitality to guests is NOT Lot; rather the rabbis learn about hospitality from Abraham. In the beginning of this week’s parsha, Abraham welcomes three visitors:
1. And the Lord appeared to him in the plains of Mamre; and he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day; 2. And he lifted up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men (anashim)stood by him; and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself to the ground, 3. And said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I beseech you, from your servant; 4. Let a little water, I beseech you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree; 5. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and you comfort your hearts; after that you shall pass on; seeing that you are come to your servant. And they said, So do, as you have said.
Abraham and Sarah go and make a fine feast for their three visitors.
This seems to be a similar story, so we might assume that we learn more or less the same lessons. Abraham sees some people coming, he is polite, he is sincere in his offer of hospitality, he is sensitive to his guests needs (he tells them rest yourself…they must have looked tired), and he feeds them well.
The sages, however, tell us that by looking at the details of the story there are additional things we can learn from Abraham, above and beyond what we could have learned from Lot. For one thing, what was Abraham doing when his visitors showed up? He was in the middle of having a conversation with God, the ultimate goal of most religious people, and he breaks off his conversation with God in order to attend to his worldly visitors. The Talmud brings a teaching of Rabbi Eleazar: Come and observe how the conduct of the Holy One, blessed be He, is not like that of mortals. The conduct of mortals is such that an inferior person cannot say to a greater man, Wait for me until I come to you; whereas in the case of the Holy One, blessed be He, it is written, and he said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, etc. (speaking to God, telling God to wait until he finishes attending to his visitors).
Can this be? Welcoming visitors is a more important mitzvah than welcoming God? How can we understand this?
The Netivot Shalom explains: One shows a good friend how beloved he is by inviting him in to his home, showing him great hospitality. However, if a friend is especially dear, even if the friend’s son shows up at your door you receive him with open arms, merely because he is your friend’s son. Inviting in guests, people who are God’s creations, His children, is an even greater sign of our love of God than actually receiving the Divine Presence. We love God so much that we are always ready to open up our homes to His children. This is why inviting in guests is greater than receiving the Divine Presence.
And this explains a critical difference in the hospitality of Lot and the hospitality of Abraham. Lot’s visitors were identified as malachim, angels. He rushed to be hospitable to them because he recognized them as being of visitors of great importance. Abraham’s visitors, on the other hand, were simply identified as anashim, as men, and he still “ran to meet them.” Lot was hospitable when he thought there would be some benefit or profit to him in being welcoming; Abraham was welcoming to everyone, nobleman and ordinary wayfarer alike.
As Ed Tuck, a venture capitalist who was one of my mentors early in my business career, puts it in his guide to conducting business, “Ed’s Rules:” “Treat everybody the same: young, old, high or low rank. This habit is a mark of good breeding.”
Of course, when it comes to treating everyone the same, my adopted country, Israel, has a ways to go in dealing with racism and discrimination…but that’s a commentary for another time.