Ben Torah or Ba'al Chessed – Who Do You Want To Be?

#VaYera #תשפב

One evening, when Reb Simcha Bunim of P'shischa was a still child, his father was learning with three friends.

The discussions continued until late in the evening. It was the week of Parshas Vayera, and these exceptional Talmidiei Chachomim sat deep in discussion, contemplating Avraham Avinu and his Hachnasos Orchim (hospitality to guests).

Listening in by the doorway was young Simcha Bunim. His father welcomed him into the room and smiled at him. “Simcha Bunim”, he said “I would like you to think hard, and come up with a new interpretation on the mitzvah hachanasos orchim. Perhaps you could come up with a chiddush (original Torah thought) to share with us before going to bed.”

Simcha Bunim agreed and went into the next room.

Half an hour later, as the four men got up from the table, Simcha Bunim's father called into him, and said, “Let's hear your chiddush on the mitvah of hachnosos orchim.”

Simcha Bunim took his father's hand and led him into the next room. There were three beds with three pillows and three sheets and covers for his father's friends.

“Tatteh,” Simcha Bunim explained, “My chiddush in Hachnosos Orchim is that the beds should be ready in case they need to spend the night.”

This sentiment is famously stated in the Talmud from the beginning of our Parsha:

אמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר רַב: גְּדוֹלָה הַכְנָסַת אוֹרְחִין מֵהַקְבָּלַת פְּנֵי שְׁכִינָה, דִּכְתִיב: ״וַיֹּאמַר ה׳ אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר וְגוֹ׳״

Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: Hospitality toward guests is greater even than receiving the Divine Presence, as when Abraham invited his guests it is written: “And he said: Lord, if now I have found favor in Your sight, please pass not from Your servant” (Genesis 18:3). (Abraham requested that God, the Divine Presence, wait for him while he tended to his guests appropriately.)

Our community values the beauty, simplicity and profundity of this idea. Broadly speaking, Avraham the champion of kind-hearted, normal, social, morally-conscious Jews. Avraham knows well that Hashem doesn't want him to spend all day in meditative prayer. Hashem wants him to get out there, make a difference, and change people's lives. Avraham is, after all, the Amud HaChessed – the pillar of loving kindness upon which the world stands.

A closer examination, however, reveals that there is something amiss in this story. Chazal tell us that Avraham and Sarah spent their lives brining people closer to Hashem – as evidenced by the narrative at the beginning of the Parsha.

But why then, from all the myriad stories of Avraham and Sarah's Chessed, does the Torah choose to tell only this story?! If anything, this is the least impactful episode of Hachnosos Orchim of their lives! Their guests here are Angels of Hashem, who do not need food, drink, or philosophical discussion. Why is this the only example of their Chessed mentioned in the entire Torah?

The Ne'os Desheh (פרשת שמיני) explains in the name of his father, the Mei HaShiloach of Izhbitz, that we are reading Chazal incorrectly. Avraham does not tell Hashem to “hold on a minute while I take care of my guests.” Quite the opposite. Avraham begs from Hashem: אִם נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ – If you love me, please don't leave me while I engage in Hachnosos Orchim. I don't want to live in a world where my care and concern for other people is devoid of a connection to You.

This is the great value of Avraham's lesson of Chessed. Becoming a Ba'al Chessed is not an alternative to being a Ben Torah. The Torah tells us this story to demonstrate that Avraham and Sarah's Cheesed was a vehicle of their own growth – even if their guests were angels who didn't need their hospitality.

Many of us go through life assuming that we must make such choices. Either I will be seriously engaged in learning, davening, avodas Hashem etc... or I can raise my family, make a living and give tzedaka. When faced with such a dichotomy, it seems borderline selfish to be an Eved Hashem!

But Avraham teaches us this is a false dichotomy. Our greatest tefillah is that even when we are not directly engaged in davening and learning, we are still inextricably linked to Avinu SheBashamayim. He doesn't leave us for even a moment.

Contrast this with the hospitality of Lot. Arguably, his Hachnosos Orchim is performed with even greater mesiras nefesh (self sacrifice) than Avraham. Indeed, he is willing to sacrifice the safety of his daughters in order to ensure that his guests are secure. Instinctively, we recoil from Lot's perceptive. We are repulsed by a man would risk the lives of his children in the pursuit of Hachnosos Orchim. It is a perverse sense of priorities.

Yet, how many parents sacrifice their children's health, happiness, stability and self-esteem on the alters of “extra time to get a promotion” or “enough money” or “social expectations”? How many relationships are neglected or destroyed by the auto-pilot habits and priorities of me and you from last year or the year before?

Avraham's great legacy is that little good comes from kindness and generosity which is devoid of Hashem. Indeed, without constantly reevaluating, reconsidering and reconnecting, everything and anything can become meaningless or dangerous. Even a pursuit as lofty and noble as Chessed can become empty and destructive without constantly reconnecting it Hashem.

Chazal (ערובין כא ב) tells us that:

אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁתִּיקֵּן שְׁלֹמֹה עֵירוּבִין וּנְטִילַת יָדַיִם, יָצְתָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה: ״בְּנִי אִם חָכַם לִבֶּךָ יִשְׂמַח לִבִּי גַּם אָנִי״.

Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: At the time that King Solomon instituted the ordinances of Eruv of courtyards and of Washing Hands to purify them from their impurity, a Divine Voice emerged and said in his praise: “My son, if your heart is wise, My heart will be glad, even Mine” (Proverbs 23:15).

Shlomo HaMelech achieved many things. Why does Hashem praise only these two institutions of Eruv and Netilas Yadayim as wise?

The Kotzker (אמת ואמונה) explains: Shlomo HaMelech instituted Eruvin – the process by which two domains are joined, and Netilas Yadayim, to cleanse our hands. For a person to spend their life making connections, but still keep their hands clean is the greatest Chochma in the world.

That was Avraham's Tefillah. That's our mission. Please Hashem, help us to connect to each other and to the world around us. But please help us to keep ourselves clean. Please don't let us become stale, perverse or twisted. Please – אַל נָא תַעֲבֹר מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ – never leave us.