There are a number of factors which led the rabbinic sages to interpret the words of Torah in a manner which veers from the plain meaning (pshat) of the text of the Torah. One such factor is that the sages, as noted by the bible scholar, James Kugel, viewed the Torah as “omni-significant”, namely, that being a divine document, it is open to a multitude of different interpretations depending on the reader’s interaction with the text. In addition, since the Hebrew writing style of the Torah differed from that of the sages, idiosyncrasies in the Torah’s manner of expression prompted the sages to respond to these differences by fusing their message with that of the Torah.
These characteristics of rabbinic interpretation are readily apparent in the story of Moshe’s meeting with his father-in-law after the redemption from Egypt. When Yitro, along with Tzipora, Moshe’s wife and their two sons, Gershon and Elazar, came to meet up with Moshe, Moshe greeted him with all due honor and respect:
Moshe went out to meet his father-in-law; he bowed low and kissed him; each asked of the other’s welfare, and they went into the tent. (Exodus 18:7)
At this meeting, Moshe recounted for his father-in-law, Yitro, all the miraculous events surrounding the redemption of the children of Israel from Egypt. In response, Yitro rejoiced in God’s saving powers and offered up sacrifices before God:
And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, brought a burnt offer and sacrifices for God; and Aharon came with all of the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moshe’s father-in-law. (Exodus 18:12)
This latter verse posed a question for the sages. Where was Moshe? From the vantage of the sages, he seems to have inexplicably disappeared from the story, requiring an explanation. The following midrash, from the period of the Mishnah, seeks to fill in that gap in the story, while providing a lesson in rabbinic etiquette in the process:
“and Aaron and all the elders of Israel came to eat bread with Moses’ father-in-law before God”: And where did Moses go? Did he not go out to him (Yitro) in the beginning? Didn’t he originally go out to see him? As it says: ‘and Moses went out to meet his father-in-law. (verse 7) And now, where did he go? Rather, it teaches that he (Moshe) stood and served them. From where did he learn (to do this)? From our father Avraham. They said: “This thing was expounded by Rabbi Tzadok and he said: ‘When Rabban Gamliel made a feast for the sages, all the sages of Israel reclined in his presence. Rabban Gamliel stood and served them. They said: We are not worthy for him to serve us. Rabbi Yehoshua said to them: Leave him to serve, for we find one even greater than Rabban Gamliel who served men. They said to him: ‘Who is this?’ [Rabbi Yehoshua] said to them: ‘Avraham, our father, [one of the] great of the world, who served ministering angels, thinking them to be Arab idolators. Rabban Gamliel, who served sages, students of Torah, how much more so!’ Rabbi Zadok replied to them: ‘Let him serve, for we find one greater than Rabban Gamliel and [greater] than Abraham, who served men. They said to him: ‘Who is this?’ He said to them: ‘The Shekhina (God’s divine presence), since at all times He supplies food to everyone in the world according to their needs and sates every living being with their needs, and not only to those who are worthy (kasherim) and righteous alone, but even to evildoers, even to idolators! Rabban Gamliel, how much more so, should he serve sages who study Torah.’ scholars! (Meckhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Yitro Parsha 1, Horowitz- Rabin ed. pp. 195-6)
A seeming lacuna in the story of the meeting of Moshe with his father-in-law provided the sages with an opportunity to portray Moshe as a role model for the proper manner for carrying out the practice of Hakhnasat Orkhim – the welcoming and hosting of guests. In fact, Moshe became just one in a line of ever greater figures, including God, who practiced this mitzvah. If this practice did not diminish the dignity of Moshe, Avraham or even God, then why should it be unbecoming for the Nasi (the patriarch) and great sage, Rabban Gamliel, to practice it as well?
Obviously, the pointof this midrash is to teach that welcoming guests is a cherished value for the rabbinic tradition, as a means for honoring others on the human level, but equally or even more so, as a means for sharing God’s love and concern. And nothing honors a host or hostess more than being the agent of this love for others.