I was several minutes late for the class, and all three students, Richard, Simon, and Leon, were present and already involved in what seemed to be quite a heated discussion. Simon, usually the most reticent of the three, was the one who was talking the most.
As soon as he saw me enter the room, he directed his words to me. "We have been using the book of Genesis as a text to teach us some basic concepts of Judaism," he said. "But I learned a basic concept earlier this week, and it wasn't from any book at all."
You will remember that I introduced you, dear reader, to this little project several weeks ago. As for the previous three sessions, I had assigned this small class the weekly Torah portion to read and to identify therein some of the basic teachings of the Jewish faith. This week, the class was to have read the Torah portion of Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24).
My experience as a teacher had long ago taught me that when a student comes in to class enthusiastic about some personal experience, it is advisable to put the assigned readings aside, at least momentarily, and hear what he or she has to say
This is what Simon had to say: "This past Sunday morning, I had decided that all this talk about Jewish philosophy was well and good, but it was time for me to actually attend a synagogue. The experience that blew me away, however, did not take place in the actual sanctuary and had nothing to do with the morning prayer service that I had attended. Rather, it was a scene I witnessed in the courtyard outside the shul. A homeless woman was sitting there, looking dirty and unkempt. She had a little charity box in her hands and was begging for alms.
"Most of the people entering the synagogue gave her some coins, but paid her no real attention. They barely looked at her. But one woman came along and approached her directly. She stopped in front of her, called her by name, and embraced her. She proceeded to ask her how her weekend had been, gave her a little package of food, embraced her again even more lovingly, and left.
"To me," continued Simon, "this was an eloquent lesson about a basic Jewish concept. I don't know what kind of food was in that little package. But I do know that the glowing smile on the woman's face was not a response to the charitable gift. It was in response to the warm and heartfelt love that she experienced in those two moments of embrace.
"I guess that the Jewish concept I learned that morning was how the manner in which a gift is given exceeds the gift itself by far."
I was emotionally moved and intellectually excited by Simon's contribution to our learning process. But I was not so moved or excited by the fact that I was unable to direct the attention of the class to the week's Torah portion. "Can any of you see a connection between Simon's wonderful experience and this week's assignment readings," I asked.
Leon, and even Richard, were about to chime in. But Simon, shyly but firmly, said that he would like to point out some connections. To my surprise, he recited several verses from the very beginning of our parsha by heart: "Abraham saw three men standing... as soon as he saw them, he ran... let me fetch a morsel of bread... Abraham hastened... then Abraham ran... and he waited on them under the tree as they ate."
Simon went on to explain: "I remember learning the story of Abraham and his unusual hospitality in Sunday school. Yet reading the passages this time, I was impressed that he not only fed his guests, but he fed them with alacrity and sensitivity and personal attention. Like the woman I observed in the courtyard of the synagogue this past Sunday morning; it was not what he did, but the way he did it, that was so impressive."
It was easy for me to expound upon Simon's very cogent observation. Our Sages teach us that the smile on our face is much more important to the person to whom we give charity than the money that we give him. They further teach that even if we give generously, but do so with a frown on our faces, we have failed in the mitzvah of tzedakah.
In this class, as in all of my teaching, I tried to introduce the Hebrew version of some of the concepts that we study. In this session too, I told the class that the Hebrew term for "hospitality" is "hachnossat orchim", and that the friendly and smiling face that is the essence of the charitable act is called "sever panim yafot."
There were several other teachings that I felt were appropriate to add to Simon's story and the biblical phrases that he adduced to drive home his point. One was the story I heard many times in my childhood about Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshyscha, a 19th century Chassidic sage. We are told that when he welcomed a stranger to his home, he first showed that stranger where his sleeping accommodations would be for that night. Only then did he serve him his meal.
Simcha Bunim explained that the poor man could not possibly enjoy his meal if he was anxious about where he would be sleeping that night, or indeed wondering whether he would have a place to sleep at all.
One of my revered teachers long ago would tell us about the time that he, as a very young man, was a guest of the saintly, then already aged Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Mayer HaKohen. He described in detail how the old Rabbi personally made the bed of his young visitor. When the young man insisted that he wished to make his own bed, the Chofetz Chaim refused to yield. He said, "If I was putting on my tefillin, would I allow you to do it for me? Hospitality is no less of a mitzvah than tefilin. I want to do it myself."
Whenever I teach and preach on the topic of hachnossat orchim, of the mitzvah of treating guests properly, I find myself pondering upon a teaching of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, who lived hundreds of years ago, and who is known by the name of the deeply spiritual book that he wrote, the Shaloh HaKadosh. This was his teaching:
"For one to fully appreciate the importance of the mitzvah of hachnossat orchim, one must realize that we are all but guests in God's world. He is the hospitable One who performs the mitzvah. We are just His guests for the night."