Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Avrohom's Grandchildren

By Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz

The parshiyos of Sefer Bereishis are replete with inspirational accounts of the Avos and Imahos that impart lessons we are to apply to our daily lives. Their stories overflow with teachings that have shaped our people for millennia.

The mussar and lessons we derive from the tales of our forefathers should stand by us every day. Earlier today, I returned from out-of-town. I pulled up to my driveway and out of nowhere a man appeared before me as I attempted to remove my suitcase from the trunk. I wasn't too happy. I was tired. I was hungry. Why did this man have to bother me right then?

The man looked at me and smiled. He had a sense of humor and said to me, “So, how are you doing? I know, you were doing good, and then you saw me!” I really wasn't in the mood of him, but he wouldn't let me go. I let him in, sat him down and gave him some soda to drink while I pulled myself together.

“Okay, let's hear your story,” I said to him.

He is a chassidisheh man from Melbourne, Australia. You know how sometimes you see that someone is a good person and you don't even bother listening to his pitch or worrying where the money you give him is going? Well, he seemed to be such a man.

He presented himself as a travel agent who took it upon himself to travel to America to raise money for needy people in his hometown. He also said he was raising money for needy people and for the kollel in his hometown.

I then understood why he was so insistent. I also would have been if I was in a strange land raising money for people I know who had fallen on bad times. I also would have thought to myself, “I traveled all the way l'shaim Shomayim to help out these people. I have to make my way into this person's heart.” I would be so sad if I couldn't get my foot through the door of someone I thought could help me. I'd really try to get in, irrespective of what that person was doing or thinking.

Thanks to that man, I gained an insight into a question that had been bothering me every time I learned Parshas Vayeirah.

In this week's parsha, we are introduced to the chesed of Avrohom Avinu. The Torah tells us that Avrohom interrupted a conversation with Hakadosh Boruch Hu to go take care of three total strangers who had appeared at his tent.

The Torah doesn't tell us what Avrohom was discussing with G-d; rather, it goes into a lengthy description of how he cared for his guests. The Torah recounts Avrohom's conversations with them and, in great detail, portrays how he cared for them.

Everything in the Torah is intended to elevate us and to teach us how we are to conduct ourselves. Apparently, what Hakadosh Boruch Hu told Avrohom at that encounter is not as important for posterity as the lesson of hachnosas orchim that we learn from Avrohom's interactions with the desert nomads who appeared at his door.

How would we have reacted in that situation? How do we act when we are doing something, and someone we don't know comes to the door for a handout? It is one thing to be nice to a person we know; it is another to be thoughtful when dealing with a total stranger, especially an Arab nomad.

Anyone can be nice to a likeable person; the test of greatness is how we treat ordinary folk who may be different from us and for whom we have no special affinity. How we talk to a nudnik after we have had a hard day shows what kind of person we really are.

Everyone is familiar with the teachings of Chazal regarding the supreme value of every human life. We all know the Mishnah in Maseches Sanhedrin (4:3) which states, “Kol hamekayeim nefesh achas m'Yisroel k'eilu kiyam olam molei.”

Still, many times we hurt people by acting without considering their feelings. Other times we know how the other person will feel, but we think that our end goal takes precedence over the way just one or two people will feel.

From where did Avrohom Avinu learn that the proper reaction was to ask Hakadosh Boruch Hu to wait for him while he cared for the orchim?

The Gemara in Maseches Shabbos (127a) quotes Rav Yehuda in the name of Rav who derives from Avrohom's conduct that, “Gadol hachnosas orchim mikabbolas pnei haShechinah - hachnosas orchim is greater than speaking with G-d.” The Gemara does not explain how Avrohom derived this understanding.

It seems to defy comprehension. If we were ever zocheh to be mekabeil pnei haShechina, would we dare turn aside to go hear what someone at the door wanted from us? If someone great were visiting our home, would we walk out of the room to help someone we didn't know?

Often, when encountering difficulty in understanding p'shat in a Gemara, it helps to examine how the Rambam quotes the passage. The Rambam brings this memrah of Rav Yehuda Omar Rav in Hilchos Aveil (14:1-2), and a reading of his words sheds light upon our question.

The Rambam opens chapter 14 of Hilchos Aveil by stating, “It is a mitzvah midrabonon to visit the sick, comfort the mourner, hotzoas hameis, hachnosas kallah, lelavos orchim, to be mesameach a chosson and kallah… These are all included in gemillas chassodim shebigufo for which there is no limit as to what we are to do.”

He then states that “even though all of these various mitzvos are midrabonon, they are included in 'Ve'ohavta lereiachah kamochah.' Anything that you would want others to do for you, you should do for other people…”

In halacha 2, the Rambam goes on to detail more of the halachos of hachnosas orchim which are derived from the way Avrohom Avinu dealt with his guests as recounted in this week's parsha.

Perhaps, since the source of the mitzvah of hachnosas orchim is from the posuk of Ve'ohavta lereiachah kamochah, which the Rambam explains to mean that you should treat others the way you want others to treat you, Avrohom felt obligated to interrupt what he was doing to help the three people at his door.

Every person, when sick and in pain, hopes people will stop what they are doing and care for him. Every person who is lost in the desert, hot and thirsty, wishes that the people in the house they see up ahead would open the door and let him in. Every person in grief or discomfort wants anyone who can relieve his hurt to drop what they are doing and rush to his rescue.

Even when one understands that the person with the painkillers may be busy doing something else and not available at the moment to help everyone, one tends to think that he and his needs are exceptional. One looks at the person capable of helping and thinks, “You may not be able to help everyone who needs help, but you can help me.”

When you are hungry and lost and need a cool drink and directions, and the person who can help you is busy at the moment, you may understand that he doesn't want to be interrupted. Nevertheless, you think that in your particular case, the person should make an exception, stop what he is doing, and take care of you.

That means that the mitzvah of Ve'ohavta lereiachah kamochah demands that you have to treat other people in precisely that way. From this perspective, Avrohom derived that he was obligated to interrupt his conversation with the Shechinah to care for the orchim. As the ultimate baal chesed, he felt obligated to subject his own desire for attaining greater spiritual heights to the mitzvah of caring for the needs of others.

In so doing, he forged a legacy that would follow the Jewish people down the generations.

We have to absorb that lesson and recognize the importance of all people and their needs. We need to put ourselves in their place and feel their pain and do what we can to help them.

And it doesn't just mean to write a check to a man from Melbourne who is raising money. All through life, people experience ups and downs. It is not always possible for us to solve the problems of our friends and family going through hard times, as we are not always able to rectify the situation. We can, however, always let them know that we are aware of their predicament and care about them.

When people go through hard times, it gives them consolation to know that other people care about them. Even if we aren't all blessed with the gift of always being able to find the right words, we are all able to find ways of expressing our concern, solidarity and friendship. The mitzvah of Ve'ohavta lereiachah kamochah obligates us to put ourselves in their place and do for them what we would want someone to do for us.

Avrohom Avinu showed us the way. Just as nothing was beyond his dignity, nothing should be beyond ours. Just as he stopped what he was doing to help his fellow human being, so, too, we can find the time and the patience to help others.

The right word at the right time is often more effective than anything else. A boy in a yeshiva away from home can be feeling lonely, and a cheerful hello from a familiar face can make his day, bring a smile back to his face, and put him back in a good mood. A person can be feeling down, and all it takes is a friendly voice to cheer him up. It is not so much what we say, but the fact that we say something.

Show people that you care about them, that they aren't alone in their misery, that they have a reason to go on living, that there is room for hope. Show them that the world isn't all that bad, that not everyone is cynical and bitter. Show them that most days the sun shines and most of the time everything turns out good. Show them that there is a G-d who cares about them, and us. Show them that nothing is happenstance.

Show them that you are a grandchild of Avrohom Avinu, and so are they.


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