He was an old man, frail, tired, and bereaved. News of Hitler’s advancing army preoccupied him, and he was overwhelmed, if not broken, by the requests for advice he was receiving from hundreds of troubled Jews.
His name was Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski, and he was universally acknowledged to be the world’s leading Talmudic scholar. He lived in the city of Vilna in late 1939.
The person who told me the story was then a young man, barely 20 years old. He was himself a refugee. He found himself in the neighborhood of Rabbi Grodzenski’s residence during the Sukkot holiday, and decided he would attempt to visit him.
How surprised he was to find the rabbi alone, studying and writing. The rabbi welcomed him, inquired about his welfare, and invited the visitor to join him in a light lunch. The rabbi told him that because of his age and physical weakness he deemed himself to be exempt from the requirement to eat in the sukkah. He considered himself a “mitzta’er,” one whose physical discomfort freed him from the sukkah requirement.
“But you,” the rabbi continued, “are a young man and reasonably healthy. Therefore, take this plate of food down to the sukkah in the courtyard, and excuse me for not being able to join you.”
The young man did so, but soon, sitting in the sukkah by himself, was surprised to hear the old rabbi slowly making his way down the many steps from his apartment to join him.
“You may wonder why I am joining you,” exclaimed the rabbi. “It is because although a ‘mitzta’er,’ one who is in great discomfort, is exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah, he is not exempt from the mitzvah of hospitality, of ‘hachnasat orchim.’”
This anecdote underscores the importance of the mitzvah of hospitality and illustrates the fact that even great physical discomfort does not excuse a person from properly receiving and entertaining his guests.
Of course, the biblical basis for Grodzenski’s teaching is to be found in this week’s Torah portion, Vayera. In the opening verses, we find that Abraham, despite the fact that he was recovering from his recent circumcision, exerts himself to welcome a small group of wayfarers and tends to their needs with exquisite care. Abraham is our model for the important mitzvah of welcoming strangers and seeing to it that they are greeted hospitably.
The 17th-century sage, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, points out that performance of this mitzvah helps us realize that we are all wanderers and merely transient guests in the Almighty’s world. We pray that He treats us hospitably during our sojourn in His world, and to earn such treatment, we are sensitive to the physical and emotional requirements of our own guests.
Another reading, a startlingly provocative one, suggests that Abraham is addressing the Almighty Himself, and that the word “lord” should be spelled with an uppercase “L”. According to this interpretation, Abraham is asking that the Lord Himself excuse him and wait for him while he tends to his guests.
Commentaries throughout the ages have questioned whether it is indeed legitimate for one to abandon his rendezvous with God in order to attend to the needs of mere human beings. Is it right for one to interrupt his dialogue with the Almighty just to perform the mitzvah of hospitality?
There is a rich literature of responses to this question. One approach is to understand that it is not so much that hospitality trumps the experience of communication with the Shechinah. One achieves true spirituality by painstakingly attending to the needs of others.
This is why we give some charity, perhaps even just a few pennies, prior to engaging in prayer. The Talmud suggests that in order to earn the right to address God in prayer, one must first demonstrate that he is not unaware of his obligations to his fellow. First alms, then prayer.
How important it is that we learn the lesson of religious priorities. Never can we place our spiritual longings above our obligations to our fellow human beings. This is the lesson taught to us so long ago by our forefather, Abraham, when he turned away from God in order to practice the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.