Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Stranger

The Medrash taught "Great is 'hesed' (acts of loving kindness)that the Torah begins with hesed and ends with hesed." The Medrash goes on to point out that the Torah begins with the story of Adam and Chava in Gan Eden,where after their calamitous sin G-d Himself clothes them. At the Torah's end we read of G-d's hesed in seeing to the burial of Moshe.

If the Torah is replete with a message of hesed much of the call to hesed is found in the early portions of the Torah we are currently reading . And that call is not given to us directly in the form of commandments but rather we learn from stories, stories of G-d's kindness, stories of G-d's loving ways, stories that teach us behaviors we are meant to emulate in our challenge to follow in G-d's ways.

And so from this week's reading of Vayeira we are called to the hesed of visiting the sick even as Hashem visited our father Avraham after his brit mila. And from the reading of next week, where we read of Hashem's blessing to Yitzchak after his mother, Sarah's death, we learn to comfort the mourner etc.

What is interesting however is that one of the most important mitzvot of hesed we don't learn from Hashem's ways at all, but rather we learn from the acts of human-kindness, in fact the kindness of Avraham and his actions in this week's parsha.
What mitzva is that? The mitzvah of'hachnasat orchim, inviting guests into one's home, hospitality.

The mitzva of hospitality, 'hachnasat orchim' is learned from the outset of this week's reading where Avraham rushed from his tent to meet the angels, he believed were travellers, walking down the road. It mattered not to Avraham that he has no idea who they were. He invited them into his home, washed them, fed them and served their needs as a valet. More, Avraham sets-out a lavish feast for them as if they were royalty honoring him with their presence. His hospitality knows no bounds. It models for us our call to the hesed of 'hachnasat orchim'.

But the question we might ask is why of all the calls to hesed is this hesed of hospitality learned from a human example and not one Divine? The call to 'hachnasat orchim' unlike 'bikur cholim','malbish arumim' and 'nichum availim' emerges not from 'Imitatio Dei' but from the inspiring example of our Patriarch.
Why? Why is their no Divine example here?

Many of us know the story of the birth of the Baal Shem Tov. He was the only child to his parents and born in their old age. Tradition has it that it was the 'zechut', merit of the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' that gained Reb Eliezer, the father of the Besht, this unusual gift from Heaven. Indeed the story goes that Satan challenged Heaven's intent to reward Reb Eliezer for the 'hachnasat orchim' he and his wife performed in such an exemplary way. And so Reb Eliezer and his wife were put to a test. The prophet Eliyahu came to them on Shabbat dressed in weekday clothes and appearing to have desecrated the Shabbat in his behavior. He even said "Gut Shabbos" to Reb Eliezer so there could be no excuse that he was confused or unaware of the holy day. Reb Eliezer might have good reason to resist inviting this 'sinner' into his home especially on the Shabbat itself. Yet Reb Eliezer and his wife extended themselves to this seeming Shabbat violator. They hosted him, providing him with wonderful meals and lodging. They never mentioned his wayward behavior. In fact, when it was time to part, Reb Eliezer and his wife invited the Jew to please return to them again and soon so they might host him once more.

The story of Reb Eliezer and that of our father Avraham have one important thing in common. They teach us that the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' is essentially intended to host the stranger, s/he who is other than us. Its no great deal to invite our family, our neighbor, a community member or a 'landsman', a friend into our home. What we are challenged to do in this mitzva of hesed is to invite someone whose ways and behaviors are different than our own. Avraham invited those he thought non-believers, men whose purpose and values were totally alien to his own. Reb Eliezer invited the 'sinner' and on Shabbat. We, in their image, are called to reach out to the ones living on the margins, those whose ways may not conform to ours at all. Yet we extend our lives and our homes to them.

Think about it. We may argue that its a sin to invite such persons into our homes, our sacred and protected space. We may well argue that allowing the one estranged into our personal sanctuary will pollute the place we most treasure and safeguard from the 'bad' influences that exist in the world without.

Yet from the story of Reb Eliezer and from the model behavior of Avraham we learn that 'hachnasat orchim' calls us to invite into the place most private to us and protected s/he who is in need of hospitality. It calls on us to risk exposing ourselves to those foreign, even those holding beliefs and values antithetical to our own, into the core of our existence.

It is for this reason that the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' is learned from the behaviors of a human, Avraham, rather than through imitation of the ways of G-d. Its true G-d extends himself and makes a home for the the one in need and estranged. But we cannot learn the extent of the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' from Hashem because no one is a 'stranger' to Hashem. Even the greatest of sinners is still His child. We all are to Him 'bnai bayit', members of the home. For the mitzvot of ' bikur cholim' and 'nichum availim' it matters not whether the person is family or stranger to the essence of the mitzva. In all cases the hesed essentially remains the same. But 'hachnasat orchim' has meaning to the extent that we reach-out to the person different from us and welcome him/her into our home. For that we can only learn from another human dealing with an 'other' not from Hashem for whom all are part of His family.

Few mitzvot earn for a person the blessing in this world that does the hesed of 'hachnasat orchim'. But we must not fool ourselves. The essence of the mitzva calls for us to invite into our home and life the one who is not us, the one different and other, no small challenge for sure!

The opportunities for fulfilling the mitzva of 'hachnasat orchim' are many. And we can do so in ways that require less effort than preparing and serving a meal or giving lodging. Simply saying "Shabbat Shalom" can be a form of hachnasat orchim, or perhaps engaging another in the language they know when its a language in which we are not fluent. The main ingredient of this hesed is found not in the 'what' we do, but to whom! "Shabbat Shalom" to the stranger, trying to communicate with the one different from us in culture and background, that is what matters!

Do you want to have a part of this great mitzva? Do you want to be called a 'machnis orach'? Look around you, find the stranger, and extend yourself! How much more beautiful our world would be if we indeed took this hesed in its truest form to heart.

Shabbat Shalom !

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