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. Indeed, he may have already sensed that he had only months to live.
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, and the time was late 1939.
The person who told me was barely 20 years old. He was a refugee, along with his fellow yeshiva students. He found himself in the neighborhood of Rabbi Grodzenski’s residence during the Sukkot holiday. He decided he would attempt to visit the rabbi, although he knew that he might not be granted an audience.
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 for 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, he was surprised to hear the old rabbi slowly making his way down the many steps from his apartment to join him in the sukkah.
“You may wonder why I am joining you,” exclaimed the old 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.”
The biblical basis for Rabbi Grodzenski’s teaching is found in this week’s Torah portion. 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, known as the Shaloh HaKadosh, 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.
“Welcoming one’s guests is a bigger mitzvah then welcoming the Shechinah, the Divine Presence.” That is the lesson the Talmud derives from the story which opens our parshah this week.
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.
There is a rich literature of responses to this question.One does not achieve a spiritual experience through meditation and prayer. 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. First hospitality, and only then can one come into the Divine Presence.