Monday, February 17, 2020

Washing Your Guests' Feet

Brachos 46

Avraham was 99 years old and G-d appears to him to make a covenant.  A covenant not of mere words, but of the flesh.  He and his descendants would circumcise themselves for all generations.  Avraham, the servant of Heaven, complies with this enormous demand unhesitatingly.  He is the midst of recovering from this incredible physical ordeal, when G-d appears to him.  He begins to reveal the next phase of the Divine plan, when Avraham stops Him, mid-sentence.

“Excuse me, Father in Heaven, I see some men approaching in the distance.”  Sure enough, three men were making their way towards Avraham and Sarah’s wilderness tent.  Our patriarch and matriarch were the epitome of hospitality.  Not even a conversation with G-d could prevent them from fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, bringing in guests.  And indeed, from this incident, our Sages derive, “Bringing in guests is greater than receiving the Divine presence.”

כִּי הָא דְּאָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן יוֹחַי: בַּעַל הַבַּיִת בּוֹצֵעַ, וְאוֹרֵחַ מְבָרֵךְ. בַּעַל הַבַּיִת בּוֹצֵעַ — כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּבְצַע בְּעַיִן יָפָה. וְאוֹרֵחַ מְבָרֵךְ — כְּדֵי שֶׁיְּבָרֵךְ בַּעַל הַבַּיִת. מַאי מְבָרֵךְ — ״יְהִי רָצוֹן שֶׁלֹּא יֵבוֹשׁ בַּעַל הַבַּיִת בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה, וְלֹא יִכָּלֵם לְעוֹלָם הַבָּא״. וְרַבִּי מוֹסִיף בָּהּ דְּבָרִים: ״וְיִצְלַח מְאֹד בְּכָל נְכָסָיו, וְיִהְיוּ נְכָסָיו וּנְכָסֵינוּ מוּצְלָחִים וּקְרוֹבִים לָעִיר, וְאַל יִשְׁלוֹט שָׂטָן לֹא בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדָיו וְלֹא בְּמַעֲשֵׂי יָדֵינוּ, וְאַל יִזְדַּקֵּר לֹא לְפָנָיו וְלֹא לְפָנֵינוּ שׁוּם דְּבַר הִרְהוּר חֵטְא וַעֲבֵירָה וְעָוֹן מֵעַתָּה וְעַד עוֹלָם״.

Rabbi Yocḥanan quoted Rabbi Shimon ben Yocḥai: The host breaks bread and a guest leads the bentching (Grace after Meals). The host breaks bread so that he will apportion generously, and the guest bentches so that he may bless the host.  How should he bless? “May it be Your will that the master of the house shall not suffer shame in this world, nor humiliation in the World-to-Come.” Rebbe would add further elements: “And may he be very successful with all his possessions, and may his possessions and our possessions be successful and near the city, and may Satan control neither his deeds nor our deeds, and may no thought of sin, iniquity, or transgression stand before him or before us from now and for evermore.”

When it comes to hosting people in our homes, there are two types of guests: your friends and your true guests.  We all like to be surrounded by our friends.  And it’s wonderful to keep company with good friends.  But that’s not the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.  The mitzvah is often mistranslated as ‘inviting guests.’   But it’s easy to invite friends over to the house.  The real mitzvah is when you ‘bring in’ people who otherwise wouldn’t be invited. 

That’s what Avraham and Sarah would do – open their tent to complete strangers. And they wouldn’t just seat them at the end of the table with all the exciting conversation taking place at the head.  They would serve them the finest delicacies, and wait on their guests, meeting their every need, even washing their hands and feet!

For many decades, my in-laws (may they live and be well till 120) were known in their neighbourhood for their incredible hospitality.  Every Shabbos, my father-in-law would bring home any number of people from shul that had no prior dinner plans.  And so their table was filled week-in, week-out, with the most beautiful neshomos that you could find.  They were all such tayere Yiden (dear brothers and sisters), but each with a story.  There were mature bachelors, widows with their orphan children, Yankele with the wooden leg, and of course, the unfortunate souls who simply had nowhere else to be.

And then there were those times of year, around the Yomtovim, when their home was not only the best restaurant in town, but they opened their humble abode to wayfarers to stay over.   Their generosity was so famous that the rooms would be wall-to-wall with sleeping bags. 

One night, my father-in-law returned home late from the office.  Not wishing to startle anyone, he knocked gently on the front door, and pushed it open slowly.  Most of the guests were fast asleep.  All of a sudden, however, a head pops up, and shouts out to the middle-aged fellow trying to make his way across the room without stepping on anyone, “Sorry, sir, there’s no more room here.  You’ll have to find another house!”

“Bringing in guests is greater than receiving the Divine presence.”  The Baal Shem Tov explains the practical application of this dictum.  Bringing guests into one’s home does not just entail physical and material effort, there are spiritual consequences too.  Having guests means more than simply giving them a meal and a place to stay.  We see from Avraham and Sarah the extent to which one must go to make a guest feel welcome.  While nobody is expecting you to start washing their feet, bringing in guests nonetheless implies a real commitment to taking care of your guests, from seeking their welfare, to making small-talk. 

What sort of spiritual sacrifices is the Baal Shem Tov talking about?  When all you want to do is finish your meal quickly and pick up your Gemara, the teaching of our Sages is activated.  Now is not the time to ‘receive the Divine presence.’  Your guests’ needs and comfort take precedence even over G-d’s needs, so to speak.

That’s why the guest is enjoined to offer an elaborate blessing to his host invoking references to avoid sinning in this world and drawing shame in the world to come.  The message he imparts to his host is, ‘I know I’ve entered your physical and spiritual space and that you’ve given up a lot to entertain my presence.  I truly appreciate it, and I bless you that the merit of the mitzvah you’ve fulfilled through me leads to increased material and spiritual blessing!’

While this guest blessing fell into disuse for hundreds of years, it has experienced a revival over the last century.  Many siddurim and bentchers now include the formula as standard.  May you always be willing to go above and beyond by sacrificing a little physical and spiritual comfort to truly fulfil the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.  And may the Almighty in turn repay you by going above and beyond to bless you and your family in every aspect of your material and spiritual life!

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