Avraham’s Heritage of Kindness

Our Sages1 interpret the word “L-rd” in the verse,2 “My L-rd, do not pass from Your servant” as referring to G‑d, i.e., Avraham was asking G‑d to wait while he cared for the wayfarers he had spotted. And thus they conclude: “Affording hospitality to guests comes before receiving G‑d’s Presence.”

This principle is echoed in the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam’s Code of Law:3

This is the statute which Avraham instituted and the path of kindness which he practiced: to give food and drink to wayfarers and to accompany them. [Indeed,] affording hospitality to guests surpasses receiving G‑d’s Presence, [as reflected in the verse:4 “And he saw three men…].”

The wording chosen by the Rambam raises two questions:

a) In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam generally states laws without citing their source. An exception is made, however, when such citation clarifies the law in question. In the instance at hand, the principle “Affording hospitality to guests surpasses receiving G‑d’s Presence” does not appear to be clarified by the verse which the Rambam cites. What is his purpose in bringing this quote?

b) In his Commentary to the Mishnah,5 the Rambam states that our observance of the mitzvos stems, not from their observance by the Patriarchs, but rather from G‑d’s command to Moshe on Mount Sinai. For example, our observance of the mitzvah of circumcision has its source, not in Avraham’s circumcision of himself and his household, but rather in G‑d’s command to Moshe6 that we should circumcise ourselves as Avraham did.

The same applies with regard to all the mitzvos commanded before the giving of the Torah. The Rambam’s reference to “the statute which Avraham instituted and the path of kindness which he practiced” is thus problematic. We observe these mitzvos, not because they are part of Avraham’s spiritual heritage, but because G‑d commanded them to us on Mount Sinai. As the Rambam himself writes,7 the mitzvah of affording hospitality is an extension of the mitzvah of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”8 What then does the reference to Avraham’s conduct teach us?

Discovering Sources of Law With Mystic Texts

These questions can be resolved by referring to a similar passage in the Tikkunei Zohar9 which states: “A person who receives guests with a full heart is considered as if he receives the Divine Presence.” This quote appears to contradict the quote from the Talmud cited previously, which states that receiving guests surpasses receiving the Divine Presence. Differences of opinion among our Sages is not an unusual matter. We find such dissimilarities within the Talmud itself, and between the Talmud and the Zohar. In this instance, however, it is difficult to say that the Tikkunei Zohar differs with the Talmud, because the Talmud’s statements are based on an explicit verse from the Torah which describes Avraham’s conduct. Statements in the Tikkunei Zohar cannot contradict a law which the Talmud derives from such a source.

Observing Mitzvoson the Spiritual Plane

The meaning of the statement in the Tikkunei Zohar can be clarified by understanding the spiritual level attained by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, author of that statement. With regard to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, it is stated:10 “His Torah was his occupation,” and he is described11 as one of “the men of a higher plane.” Even the revealed dimensions of Torah law clarify the greatness implied by these two descriptions. And in the texts of Pnimiyus HaTorah and Chassidus,12 their uniqueness is even more strongly highlighted.

In view of Rabbi Shimon’s spiritual level, one can understand his appreciation of what it means to “receive the Divine Presence.” Indeed, the Zohar identifies Rabbi Shimon with the Divine Presence itself, stating: “What is meant by ‘the face of the L-rd G‑d’? This is Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.”13

So we can appreciate that what “receiving G‑d’s Presence” means to us receiving an awareness of the inner dimensions of G‑dliness was for Rabbi Shimon a continuous experience. The inner dimension of G‑d’s Presence always shined forth for him. So when he speaks of “receiving G‑d’s Presence,” we must understand that he is speaking of a higher level.

Rabbi Shimon was thus saying that showing hospitality to guests is equivalent to his own higher level of “receiving G‑d’s Presence.” But while Rabbi Shimon considered his own level to be the standard for the world at large,14 others who have not reached his exalted plane regard the showing of hospitality as surpassing the reception of the Divine Presence.

Another point: In Likkutei Torah,15 it is explained that Rabbi Shimon’s soul was on such a high level that his spiritual service alone could draw down the influence which others draw down through the observance of mitzvos on the physical plane.

This concept is reflected in the fact that during the 13 years which Rabbi Shimon hid from the Romans in the cave, he surely did not have the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvos of eating matzah, making Kiddush with wine, taking a lulav and esrog, dwelling in a sukkah, and the like. It is true that while hiding he was anus, prevented from observing these mitzvos by forces beyond his control. Nevertheless, although “the Torah does not hold an anus liable [for punishment],” it is difficult to say that Divine Providence would have allowed Rabbi Shimon to be without the Divine influence drawn down by these mitzvos. This leads to the conclusion that through his spiritual service alone, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was able to achieve what others are able to do only through the actual observance of mitzvos.

Unquestionably, the actual observance of mitzvos was also relevant to Rabbi Shimon. Thus the Jerusalem Talmud16 asks rhetorically: “And does Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai not agree that [Torah study] should be interrupted in order to build a sukkah, or to prepare a lulav ?” Nevertheless, as reflected by Rabbi Shimon’s experience in the cave, the actual performance of mitzvos including the mitzvah of receiving guests was much more important to others than it was to him.

[To cite a parallel concept: Although the violation of a negative commandment is generally punishable by lashes, this punishment is not given if the violation does not itself involve a deed.17 We find several halachic authorities18 who maintain that whenever a negative commandment generally does not involve a deed, one is not punished by lashes even in a particular instance when the violation did involve a deed. Since the violation of that prohibition generally does not involve a deed, the performance of a deed is not deemed significant. Similarly, since Rabbi Shimon’s spiritual service could take the place of the actual observance of mitzvos, even when he actually observed a mitzvah, that observance was not as significant for him.]

Similarly with regard to showing hospitality to guests, Rabbi Shimon observed this mitzvah on such a high spiritual level that its physical trappings were not as significant. Therefore the spiritual dimensions of the mitzvah of showing hospitality to guests did not (for him) surpass the reception of the Divine Presence.

Accordingly, Rabbi Shimon maintained that showing hospitality is merely equivalent to receiving the Divine Presence. But the halachah, which “follows the majority” who cannot aspire to Rabbi Shimon’s level (indeed, “men of a higher plane” like Rabbi Shimon are few), rules that showing hospitality surpasses receiving the Divine Presence.

Resolving the Rambam’s StatementsBased on Kabbalah

On this basis, we can understand the Rambam’s intent in citing the source for the concept of affording hospitality to guests. Citing the source in the narrative from the Torah indicates that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Tikkunei Zohar does not differ from this halachah. (When there is a difference of opinion between the Talmud and the Zohar, the halachah follows the Talmud. Nevertheless, in such a situation, the minority view retains a measure of importance, and remains relevant to the Divine service of every Jew, as implied by the statement:19 “These and these are the words of the living G‑d.”)

By bringing the source for this halachah from an explicit verse, the Rambam indicates that, appearances notwithstanding, there is no difference of opinion regarding this matter. In the Tikkunei Zohar, Rabbi Shimon is speaking about his own personal level. Thus his statement does not contradict that of the Talmud , which is applicable to people at large.

It is not surprising that the Rambam seeks to clarify an issue whose source is in the Zohar, for the Rambam was a Kabbalist,20 and many of the concepts stated in his works have their source in the Zohar or other Kabbalistic texts.21

Following Avraham’s “Path of Kindness”

This also enables us to understand the wording chosen by the Rambam: “This is the statute which Avraham instituted and the path of kindness which he practiced….” This also explains why the statements of Rabbi Shimon in the Tikkunei Zohar do not contradict the halachah as stated by the Talmud. The influence we are granted to perform the mitzvos as commanded to us on Mount Sinai is because “the deeds of the Patriarchs are a sign to their descendants.”22 The fact that for the Jewish people as a whole offering hospitality to guests surpasses receiving the Divine Presence is a result of the influence of Avraham our Patriarch. “The statute which Avraham instituted” has become part of the spiritual heritage of every Jew.

This is also implied by the phrase “the path of kindness which he practiced.” Since Avraham’s Divine service followed the vector of Chesed (kindness) as reflected by the fact that he even sought the benefit of Yishmael, as it is written:23 “Would it be that Yishmael live before You” he blazed a path of caring for guests that would enable every one of his descendants, even those on a low level, to follow in his footsteps. He empowered every one of us to show hospitality in a manner which surpasses receiving the Divine Presence.

This is the intent of the phrase “the statute which Avraham instituted and the path of kindness which he practiced.” Were it not for the Divine service of Avraham our Patriarch, we would not have the potential to fulfill the mitzvah of offering hospitality on the material plane. Avraham’s Divine service endowed every one of his descendants with his quality of kindness, engraving it on our hearts. And this kindness will be expressed in our conduct. This is “the entire purpose of man.”24

(Adapted from Sichos Erev Rosh HaShanah, 5723)

An Inherent Desire to Help

My revered father-in-law, the Rebbe, once said25 that we must learn a directive for our conduct from the weekly Torah reading. This concept can be readily understood. Since G‑d is eternally alive, and He has given us a Torah which is a source of eternal life, by continually studying it we can derive lessons that apply to our daily lives. This in turn endows us with eternal vitality, enabling us to overcome any and all difficulties.

This week’s Torah reading describes Avraham, the first Jew. He was one man, alone, and the entire world opposed him26 until it became obvious that G‑d supported him in everything he did. At that point, the king of the Philistines asked to establish a covenant with him, which enabled him to live securely in their land.

With regard to the time during which Avraham lived in the land of the Philistines, this week’s Torah portion tells us:27 “And Avraham planted an eshel, a tamarisk tree… and there he called in the name of G‑d, L-rd of the world” i.e., he publicized G‑d’s presence28 “And Avraham lived in the land of the Philistines for an extended period.” It is after these verses that the Torah tells us about the binding of Yitzchak.

The question arises: What lesson can we learn from the fact that Avraham planted a tamarisk tree? Previously, the Torah described the greatness of Avraham, relating how although he was the one and only Jew, and that he spread faith in the one G‑d. After such heights of devotion, what is added by the fact that he planted a tamarisk tree? And how does planting a tamarisk tree relate to the narrative of the binding of Yitzchak?

The tamarisk is a large tree with broad branches. Since Avraham was living in a desert, he planted such a tree to provide wayfarers with protection from the scorching sun. The Talmud29 extends the interpretation of the Hebrew word eshel , explaining that it refers not to only one tree, but to an orchard. Avraham planted an orchard so that passersby could refresh themselves with the fruit.

The Talmud also offers a second interpretation, stating that eshel refers to an inn. Besides fruit, Avraham gave wayfarers bread and meat, drink and lodging.30 Indeed, the Midrash31 states that he even provided his guests with a court of law in which they could settle any dispute that might arise among them.

Avraham did not content himself with providing bread, salt and water, so that his guests’ basic needs would be met. He did not provide only the bare minimum; he gave his guests items which brought them pleasure: fruit, wine, delicacies and lodging; and gave them also a court to resolve their difficulties.

And for whom did he do this? For absolute strangers.

This teaches a lesson. Within the heart of every Jew has been implanted the attribute of charity and the desire to perform deeds of kindness. This is our heritage from Avraham our Patriarch32 not merely to provide other people with the bare necessities, but rather to enable them to derive pleasure material pleasure, and the personal satisfaction that comes from the resolution of one’s problems.

The above approach to charity is particularly relevant to parents in their relationship with their children. Parents have an inherent desire to give their children everything they need (without questioning whether the children will ever repay them). And they will give them more than their needs. For example, in the sphere of education, parents endeavor to give their children everything they need so that they will develop and grow to the full extent of their potential in both material and spiritual affairs.

For Jews, this approach is not confined to one’s own children; it is extended to others as well. In every Jewish heart, there is an inherent tendency to share even what one has earned through hard work and much effort with utter strangers. And this involves not only providing for material needs, but also addressing personal problems.

This approach transcends the bounds of reason. Our minds understand that we should give another person what he is lacking; it’s a pity that a person should suffer. But the willingness to give a person something he doesn’t need, something intended to give him pleasure, stems from a type of generosity which surpasses the intellectual imperative. A person’s attribute of kindness is what motivates him to seek out the other person’s ultimate welfare.

If these concepts apply with regard to material things, surely they are relevant with regard to the spiritual. For a spiritual deficiency a lack felt by the soul causes much more pain, and is much more difficult to correct, than a material deficiency.

Therefore, whenever Jews reach a new place regardless of whether it is a free country or a country which oppresses them the very first matter to which they address themselves is the establishment of yeshivos and Torah schools.33 And the approach is always not merely to give the students the minimum, but to develop them to their fullest potential, “to make the Torah great and glorious.”34

The Source OF Self-Sacrifice

On this basis, we can appreciate the connection between Avraham’s planting of a tamarisk tree (and all the broader implications of the word eshel) and the binding of Yitzchak. The power of mesirus nefesh which motivated Avraham and Yitzchak to carry out the akeidah came from the tamarisk tree which Avraham had planted, i.e., from his willingness to do good and spread kindness in a manner which transcends reason. Although Avraham and Yitzchak had lived freely in the land of the Philistines for many years and did not suffer oppression, their unbounded kindness enabled them to summon up the self-sacrifice necessary for the akeidah with joy.

What is Necessary Today

This serves as a lesson for subsequent generations. Today, what is demanded of the Jewish people is mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice, and this is particularly true with regard to chinuch, education. The resources for which we have labored must be dedicated to the education of children our own, and the children of others.

Moreover, the intent must be to give them not only the bare necessities, but to advance their education to the most complete degree, giving them everything possible in the realms of Yiddishkeit, Torah, and mitzvos.

In this manner, we will raise a generation of mesirus nefesh Yidden, Jews prepared to sacrifice themselves for Yiddishkeit. Although they live in a free land, they will be ready to give of themselves offering their possessions and if necessary their lives for their faith in the Torah and its mitzvos, and for everything which is connected to their Jewish heritage.

G‑d’s Blessing

G‑d responds with generous blessings for the support given to yeshivos and Torah schools. He does not give merely “a dollar for a dollar,” but rather multiplies our gifts several fold. And this applies not only in the financial sphere that is self-evident but with regard to all matters: health, long life, and satisfaction from children. (This is also reflected with regard to Avraham: Although he began with only one son, he was granted the promise:35 “I will greatly increase your descendants, [multiplying them] as the stars of the heavens, and the sand on the seashore.”)

“Do not feel bad about giving.”36 On the contrary, may G‑d enable us to emulate the example set by Avraham and Yitzchak, and give with happiness. G‑d will repay this generosity several fold, not only in the financial sphere, but in all aspects of life.37

(Adapted from the sichah delivered to supporters of the
Lubavitcher Yeshivah, Tomchei Temimim, Cheshvan 17, 5719)