One of the more mysterious characters of the early period of Hassidism was Reb Leib Sarah’s. Born in 1731, his life spanned the formative years of the hassidic movement. His name – Reb Leib Sarah’s – indicates that he came from a locale where there was more than one lad called Leib and to distinguish him from his counterpart, he was known by his mother’s name; that is, which Leib – Sarah’s Leib.
According to hassidic tradition, Reb Leib Sarah’s knew the Baal Shem Tov (ca. 1700-1760) and later was a follower of Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid of Mezritch (died 1772). He outlived these two greats of the nascent movement. By the time he passed away in 1790, Hassidism was already in the third generation and could seriously be considered a movement.
The mystery that shrouds his character was born of his vocation. Unlike many of his more famous counterparts, Reb Leib Sarah’s did not opt for a career in the rabbinate nor did he lead a following. Instead, he wandered the towns of Poland spreading the message of Hassidism wherever he went. Reb Leib Sarah’s did not leave behind a dynasty of hassidic masters, nor did he bequeath writings of note. Thus Reb Leib Sarah’s continued to live only in the tales of the hassidim.
The obscurity of this character led one modern hassidic master to question whether Reb Leib Sarah’s should be identified with another hassidic master, R. Leib of Shpola, known as the Shpoler Zeide (the grandfather from Shpola, 1724-1811). While they had the same first name and were both sons of a Sarah, we know this identification to be inaccurate for the former’s father was Yosef and the latter’s Baruch. Moreover, the dates of their lives differ. The confusion only further illustrates the haziness surrounding Reb Leib Sarah’s life.
On his travels Reb Leib Sarah’s would often stop in Lwów (today Lviv, Ukraine) and stay at a certain wealthy person’s home. It happened once that Reb Leib Sarah’s came to Lwów and arrived at the home of his usual host only to find the wealthy man not home.
Unperturbed, Reb Leib Sarah’s asked one of the servants for a room to stay. The servant, who had not previously met Reb Leib Sarah’s, excused himself to go find his master and get permission.
“Master, there is a visitor at your home who is requesting a room.” The wealthy man impatiently waved his hand: “Let the man go to one of the guest houses in the city.”
In the meantime, word spread that Reb Leib Sarah’s had arrived in Lwów. When the news reached the wealthy man’s ears, he immediately understood his error and he hurried to find Reb Leib Sarah’s: “My teacher, please forgive my mistake, I knew not that it was you who requested a room. Please do me the honor of staying at my house, as you have done in the past.”
Reb Leib Sarah’s refused: “In our tradition, Abraham is the paradigm of welcoming guests, yet in truth his nephew Lot also welcomed guests [see Genesis 19:1-3]. In many ways, Lot’s hospitality was greater than Abraham’s for Lot lived amongst evil people, and despite this harsh environment he still welcomed guests. Moreover, when the guests at first refused his invitation, Lot persisted until they eventually agreed to come to his home. We find no such effort exerted by Abraham! Welcoming guests should be modeled after Lot, not Abraham!”
Reb Leib Sarah’s explained why such a reading was flawed: “In truth, Lot was not a particularly hospitable person but when he saw angels approaching Sodom, he hurried to greet them and bow down before them. Who would not want to invite angels into their home! Abraham, in contrast, saw three people approaching [see Genesis 18:2]. It was toward three people – not three angels – that Abraham ran. This is true hospitality.”
It is no challenge to accord honor to the honorable. True hospitality is inviting people who do not look like angels into our homes. Indeed, those who invite people into their homes, those who accord honor to other humans, may quickly realize – as Abraham realized – that they have indeed welcomed angels who may bring them good tidings.