By Shalom Olensky
This week in the Torah:
Abraham interrupts receiving a revelation from G-d, in order to welcome and host three desert wayfarers. (Genesis 18)
Talmud (Shabbat 127a):
“From this we learn that hosting guests is greater than receiving G-d’s Presence.”
Maimonides (Laws of Mourning 14:2):
“This is the law which our patriarch Abraham established, and the path of kindness which he followed; feeding wayfarers food and drink and accompanying them. Indeed, hosting guests is greater than receiving G-d’s Presence, as it states [Genesis 18:2] ‘Abraham saw three men…’.”
In Maimonides’ mind, what elaboration to the law of hospitality is added by including the Scriptural source?
Maimonides himself writes that the Mitzvot we do today are solely to fulfill the Commandments G-d gave us through Moses at Mt.Sinai. For instance, hospitality is part of the Commandment to “Love your fellowman as yourself.” If so, then why does Maimonides, here, seemingly attribute our performing hospitality to Abraham?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, (in Tikkunei Zohar, near the end of Ch. 6):
“Meritorious is he who receives guests wholeheartedly; it is as if he is receiving G-d’s Presence.”
How do we understand this, so as not to contradict the Talmud and Maimonides who say that “hosting guests is greater than receiving G-d’s Presence”?
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai stood constantly on the level of receiving G-d’s Presence; this was his normal existence. Understandably then, his receiving an extraordinary G-dly revelation, was even higher.
Since hospitality is greater than Rabbi Shimon’s simple spiritual existence, Rabbi Shimon, in chronicling hospitality and extraordinary G-dly revelation, wrote that these are of equal magnitude. Whereas, the Talmud and Maimonides speak of our much simpler level of receiving G-d’s Presence, and this is not as great as hospitality.
Rabbi Shimon was able, when necessary, to fulfill Mitzvot and achieve their Divine influence without completely doing the physical act of a particular Mitzvah. Hence, since his hospitality was carried out spiritually, he considered this on par with his receiving G‑d’s Presence. Torah law, applicable to the masses, deems our physical hospitality greater than our receiving G-d’s Presence.
Answer to Question 1:
Therefore, Maimonides cites the Scripture of Abraham’s physical hospitality, carried out instead of receiving G-dly revelation, to prove that, generally speaking, hospitality is greater than receiving G-d’s Presence. And, also, to prove the concurrence of the Tikkunei Zohar – spiritual hospitality equal in comparison with a lofty revelation, with the Talmud – physical hospitality compared with, and assessed to be greater than, a simpler level of revelation. I.e., these two sources do not argue, they merely speak of different levels.
Answer to Question 2:
We are commanded by G-d, through Moses at Mt. Sinai, to be hospitable. To be able to actually be hospitable to such a degree that communication with G-d seems lesser, we need Abraham’s spiritual empowerment. This, he imparted to us, out of immense loving-kindness, a character trait recognizable, also, in his outstanding hospitality.
(Based on Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 3, Vayera)