“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Think of your own memories and you’ll discover the truth in May Angelou’s quote.
I know I have such a memory from when I was just 6-years-old. My family had just moved to a neighborhood where I knew no one. So at my parents urging, I accompanied my older sister on visit to a house of one of her classmates. We arrived a bit early, and they had not yet finished their dinner, so we just stood off to the side. No one invited us to sit down, partake of anything, or even to have a drink. The absence of hospitality wasn’t what struck me, though, it was the reaction to our presence.
The father of the house got so angry that he turned red in the face. You would have thought that we had tracked mud all over the floor or something worse. He berated us for not offering to help clear the table. I’m sure that in the father’s mind he was doing the right thing in driving home a lesson about expectations for a child’s behavior. But he had forgotten something fundamental here. We entered his home as guests, (and not even guests who were invited to the table) and guests should be made to feel welcome. Berating people, particularly children, is the opposite of making them feel welcome. That is that feeling that I never forgot, and even then I knew that this authority figure was in the wrong.
If this man was unfamiliar with Angelou, he should have been able to derive the same lesson from the Torah. That’s one of the object lessons from the narratives about Avraham’s life recounted in Parshas Vaera. As we know, Avraham didn’t just put out the welcome mat; he put out four of them in keeping his tent open to passersby in all directions. Rabbi Frand derives practical application from what Avraham did for the angels to how we should treat guests in Lesson #1 In Hospitality: Don’t Let Your Guests Feel Inferior.
That lesson is clearly illustrated in the episode of Avraham receiving the angels in (Bereishit 18). It opens with Avraham, who is recovering from his circumcision, receiving a visitation from G-d. In this way G-d demonstrates the mitzvah of bikkur cholim [visitng the sick], promoting the attribute of chessed that Avraham internalized. Avraham sees the three angels appear and then, in effect, puts his conversation on G-d on hold.
Avraham was requesting that G-d Himself wait until he took care of the guests. Our Sages learn out the greatness of this mitzvah from that episode as related in Tractate Shabbos 127a: “Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav, Welcoming guests is greater than receiving the face of the Shechina [the Divine presence]” and then quotes verse 18:3.
Another object lesson we get from the account of Avraham’s preparations to welcome his guests is that it is greater to take care of things personally than to delegate. The passive voice is used in verse 4, when Avrahm says “let water be taken” rather than “I’ll get the water.” Rashi explains: Please let…be taken: through a messenger, and the Holy One, blessed be He, rewarded his [Abraham’s] children through a messenger, as it is said: “And Moses raised his hand, and he struck the rock.”
Now we know that Avraham wasn’t at all lazy and really did put himself out to prepare things for his guests. If he directed someone else to fetch the water, likely he had a good reason for doing so. In fact, the messenger he was using in this case was likely his son Yishmael whom he was training to welcome guest. Accordingly, the delegation was really an act of chinuch education in the proper way to behave.
Nonetheless, the very slight detraction from the complete fulfillment of hospitality through one’s own efforts here is seen to outweigh the possible benefit of chinuch. As important as chinuch is in our tradition, and its importance does determine what we do in the case of a number of halachos, the ideal of hachnasos orchim proves to be even more important.
To return to my story, this man who thought he was fulfilling the concept of chinuch in berating the children who were not even there for dinner completely lost sight of the priorities clearly set out by the Torah. When it comes to chessed, the lesson is one of modeling the behavior that makes people feel good about themselves. It’s not “Kid, do this because you should be doing chessed.” It’s “I’m doing whatever it takes to be sure my guests feel welcome.”