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Hospitality: The Ultimate Purpose

One of the largest industries in the State of Florida is the hospitality industry. According to IBIS World, the market size, measured in revenue, for hotels and motels in Florida is approximately 20.3 billion dollars for2020, the covid pandemic notwithstanding. The University of Central Florida is ranked #5, just behind Cornell, Michigan State, Nevada-Las Vegas, and Virginia Polytech for best hospitality management programs in the United States.

Who was the world’s first premier hotel manager/entrepreneur? If you guessed Avraham our patriarch, you would be right. The Torah tells us, “And he (Avraham) planted an eishel in Beersheva, and he called there in the name of the Lord, the God of the world.” (Beresheit 21:33) In explaining the word “eishel,” Rashi quotes the Talmud, Sota 10a. One opinion is that he planted a grove of fruit trees for those who would pass by.  The other opinion is that he built an inn for wayfarers. Both opinions are addressing Avraham’s hospitality to provide food and shelter.

This week’s parsha opens with Avraham beseeching Hashem not to depart as he tends to the needs of 3 approaching strangers. We must ask, how could Avraham leave the Divine Presence, the most exalted and sublime personal experience, to take care of mere mortals? The answer lies in understanding the mitzvah of הכנסת ארחים, hospitality, and Avraham’s mission.

Hospitality is categorized under the broad mitzvah of גמילות חסד, bestowing loving kindness. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot mentions “The world stands on 3 mitzvot: Torah, sacrifice, and acts of loving kindness.” The commentaries describe the difference between צדקה, charity, and חסד.  Lending money is an example of loving kindness. Yet, the borrower will return the loan. When giving charity, the money is not returned. Yet, in the context of this Mishnah, lending money is a greater mitzvah than giving charity. Why?

The commentaries explain. In so far as the human condition is concerned, being poor or destitute is intolerable. We cannot let that situation continue without intervention. Yet in giving charity there is a danger of creating embarrassment and/or a loss of human dignity for the recipient. But in so far as the smooth running of society, which is the concern of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, lending money is a greater mitzvah. Both the rich and the poor borrow and lend. They do so for personal as well as for business reasons. Also, there is no embarrassment in the process of borrowing and lending. It takes place daily and openly in our banks and other financial institutions.

 From the standpoint of creating human relationships, when giving charity, there is no identification or a positive relationship established with the person in need. However, when performing acts of loving kindness, there is an identification between the two participants, and the opportunity to establish a relationship between the parties is created. Today I am the lender but tomorrow I may be the borrower. “I said, the world is built on loving kindness.” (Psalms 89:3) Rashi and Rambam learn that this verse teaches the principle of the Mishnah, “the world is maintained by acts of loving kindness.”

What is the story of hospitality? It is also a form of loving kindness. Rabbi Soloveitchik mentions that חסד demonstrates “an existential communal awareness, an open not a closed life, a life not as a castle or fortress but as an accessible tent, sharing a common experience instead of holding everything for himself.”  (Abraham’s Journey, p. 102) Bringing someone into your home, then, clearly creates a personal and more intimate relationship between the participants.

For most of us, the mitzvah of hospitality ends with the socialization and goodwill created between the people in the home of the host. But for Avraham that was just the starting point. He used hospitality and the personal relationships he created to achieve a higher goal, teaching and spreading the true ideas about God. Removing false ideas from a person’s mind and replacing them with true ideas is the greatest חסד, act of loving kindness, one person can do for another person. When Avraham went into the hospitality business he did so primarily out of his desire to share his intellectual breakthroughs with his fellow man.

How could Avraham break off his communion with God to attend to the needs of 3 strangers passing by his tent? Avraham’s goal in life was to cause Hashem to be recognized and beloved by all humanity. He was never told or commanded to go out and teach others what he discovered.  His energy to do so stemmed from his knowledge and love of God. At the very end of The Guide for the Perplexed, Rambam writes, “Having acquired this knowledge, he will then be determined always to seek loving kindness, judgment and righteousness, and thus imitate the ways of God.”

Avraham’s love of God extended to all humanity since all humans are endowed with a divine soul, created in His image.  Every person deserves and is entitled to be treated with compassion and loving kindness. Nothing supersedes that involvement, even a personal encounter with God. Hence our sages say, “Displaying hospitality is greater than greeting the Divine Presence.”

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Kaplan