Vayeira: ‘Too Ill to Entertain?’

Entertaining guests was just a part of life in Raphael’s household as he was growing up. Several times every week there would be people invited for meals, often two or three guests, and as many as five or six on Shabbat. Raphael’s parents loved to do the mitzvah of ‘Hachnasat Orchim’, welcoming visitors, and Raphael also developed a love for this mitzvah which was to remain with him for the rest of his life.

Raphael enjoyed meeting new people, from whom he learnt much about the world. Through his parents’ hospitality he had met great rabbis, famous artists, popular musicians, travelling salesmen of all kinds and even a lion-tamer and clown who had been selling tickets for their circus shortly before it came into town! Every character was different, and interesting. Raphael and his family would be treated to the most fascinating job-descriptions, the most incredible life stories. Raphael’s father always made sure that at some point during each meal he included a ‘d’var Torah’, often connecting it to tales which had been told by his guests. In this way he would use guests’ experiences to help him to teach valuable Torah lessons.

It became a dream of Raphael’s that one day his own table should regularly be graced with new faces. This was a mitzvah which he would do with all of his heart, not only because he enjoyed entertaining but also because of the happiness the mitzvah brought about in the visitors themselves. Many of his parents’ guests would express their delight in being made to feel so welcome and Raphael believed this to be a real chessed, kindness.

During his time in Yeshivah Raphael himself was made welcome at many Shabbat tables and it was this personal experience of being a guest that taught him some important lessons. He realised how uncomfortable a guest can feel sitting in a strange dining room and how important it is that a host make his visitors feel comfortable and at ease. Raphael noticed that it is easier for guests if food is put on the table for people to take themselves. Each person can then take as much or as little as he wants instead of feeling obliged to eat everything that has been placed on the plate in front of him, or feeling embarrassed to ask for more, or for less!

The years passed quickly. Raphael was blessed with his own family. Regularly inviting guests for meals he and his wife became well-known for their hospitality and loved for their generous nature.

Raphael owned his own business and as it grew he could afford to host more guests more regularly and to employ kitchen staff to prepare and serve the meals. There came a point at which it became necessary to draw up a detailed schedule, showing whom had recently been invited, whom had not been invited for a while, whom had never been invited, which people were vegetarians, who lived too far away and needed to stay the night and so on. However, before long neither Raphael nor his wife had time to organise the schedule so they employed someone to do it for them; the person they employed was called Simcha.

Simcha was very efficient, and very quickly learnt the names and food-preferences of the many hundreds of people who would pass through his employers’ front door every year. Simcha made sure that there would never be an empty chair at Raphael’s table. There would always be an interesting assortment of guests and never one whose needs were not satisfied. Simcha always informed the cook when they were expecting guests with special diets, be it vegetarian, diabetic or simply when there would be people who did not enjoy certain foods. Raphael himself made great efforts to create a lighthearted, comfortable atmosphere. He would be careful to include everyone in conversation who was happy to be included, and would not allow meals to last too long when people who lived far away were anxious to begin their journey home in good time. Taking his father’s example Raphael would always be sure to have words of Torah spoken at mealtimes, usually in connection with the forthcoming sedra.

One year, at the beginning of a particularly cold winter, Raphael fell ill. His head and limbs ached and he had very little appetite. The doctor told Raphael to rest in bed for three days, assuring him that he should be quite well by the end of the week.

It occurred to Simcha that he might be able to help his employer back to good health. He cancelled all invitations for the next two weeks in order that Raphael should not be troubled with a constant flow of hungry strangers. Simcha was certain that a clear two weeks without the strain of entertaining would guarantee Raphael a complete recovery.

Three days passed, five days passed, yet there was no indication at all that Raphael’s health was improving. Indeed, his wife was quite sure he was getting worse. She called for the doctor again. Dr. Elisha was most surprised that Raphael had not yet made a full recovery to his healthy, happy self. He prescribed more complete rest before leaving the bedroom with Raphael’s wife.

“I just do not understand”, began Dr. Elisha,

“I have seen many people with these symptoms but not one has ever taken more than four days at the most to recover! I’m even more puzzled at why Raphael appears to be getting worse rather than better. There is one question I would like to ask you. Has anything happened that might have upset Raphael? Have any changes in Raphael’s life saddened him, either just before or during his illness? I ask you this because a strong state of mind can be a very important aid to the healing process, and I have never seen your husband look so depressed.”

Raphael’s wife lowered her eyebrows in thought and took a deep breath before answering:

“I really don’t think so.”

“Nothing at all?” pressed Doctor Elisha,

“Well, just one thing Doctor, but that was intended to help my husband, not make his condition worse.”

“Go on.”

“It is only that Simcha cancelled all dinner invitations for two weeks. The house has been so much quieter and that must have helped.”

Doctor Elisha clenched his fists and looked up at the ceiling in dismay.

“That will not have helped at all! You have deprived Raphael of his favourite mitzvah! No wonder he is still lying in bed feeling so sorry for himself!”

The doctor wrote out a new prescription:

“At least three guests for dinner every day, for one full week!”

This medicine worked more quickly than any Doctor Elisha had prescribed before. Raphael became well and his house was again filled with interesting new voices. Simcha had learnt his lesson and never cancelled any invitations again without being instructed to do so.

***

Raphael’s love for the mitzvah of ‘hachnasat orchim’, welcoming visitors, can help us to understand a comment of Rashi at the beginning of this week’s sedra on the words “in the heat of the day.” (Bereishit 18;1)

Having already explained that it was the third day after Avraham’s Brit Milah, when Avraham would have been in a great deal of pain, Rashi now explains:

“The Holy One, blessed is He, brought the sun out of its sheath that he (Avraham) might not be troubled by travellers, but when He (Hashem) realised that Avraham was upset that no travellers were coming by, He brought to him angels in the form of men.”
(Baba Metzia 86b)

So beloved was the mitzvah of ‘hachnasat orchim’ to Avraham that losing the opportunity to welcome visitors only added to his distress. Even when he was suffering great physical pain Avraham’s enthusiasm for welcoming passers-by into his home did not diminish in the slightest.

The main lesson we learn from this, of course, is the importance of offering hospitality, and the energy with which the mitzvah should be performed.

However, there is another lesson that we should take to heart. No matter how much physical or mental distress one may be experiencing one should not allow this in any way to negatively influence one’s behaviour towards other people. If you are unwell, or feeling low, do not behave unpleasantly to others. Indeed, if you make an effort to remain friendly and welcoming, this itself may help you to feel better.

© J. Richards 2004

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