One of the great mitzvot, modeled in our recent parshiot by Avraham Avinu, is hakhnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests. There is a story told of Reb Eliezer, the father of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism:
It is said that he used to post a guard at the entrance to his town to welcome any strangers who passed through. One time he was tested by being sent a peculiar and uncouth guest. This guest not only acted in a most impolite manner such as putting his shoes on the table, eating with his hands, and being generally rude and coarse, but had the audacity to arrive to town and to this very religious man’s house after Shabbat had come in and to leave before Shabbat was over (despite the religious prohibition of travelling on Shabbat). Both the guest and Reb Eliezer received many a strange and unfriendly glance from the other townspeople. Who was this man? Why was he here? How did he have the audacity to break shabbat? What business did Eliezer have welcoming such a guest into his house? The Besht’s father, however, responded only with warmth and hospitality, making the stranger feel at home in his house. As so many of these tales go, the stranger was of course Elijah the prophet and it was from the merit of this great hospitality that the Baal Shem Tov was born.1
This welcoming is not only an external act but also an internal one. Can we welcome all the internal visitors to our heart, the joy and sorrow, the anger and love, and in doing create the healing and love that Eliezer and Abraham do. The challenge of both Abraham and Eliezer is: Can we be this welcoming to both the external and internal guests which come to call? Can we relate with the warm, loving hospitality that Eliezer displayed in his indiscriminate welcoming of every visitor? It is very hard to do, but the reward is great. Indeed, we learn in the Talmud, Rav Yehudah said: Welcoming guests (hakhnasat orhim) is greater than receiving (me-hakabalat) the face of the Shekhinah.2
Welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the Shekhinah, the divine presence, perhaps because guests are not always so pleasant. There are some guests we rejoice to see at our door: pleasure, excitement, joy, love, and laughter. But there are others whom, when we see them through the peephole, we cringe before: shame, anger, doubt, malice, jealousy, confusion, discomfort and fear, hoping that if we do not open the door they will just go away. Yet what we learn from Reb Eliezer is that these openings are fundamentally connected. We cannot choose to only open to the pleasant guest, we cannot truly open to the joy without opening to the pain, we cannot open to the love without opening to the anger, we cannot open to laughter without opening to tears. When we shut our doors to keep out unwanted guests we actually shut the doors on the prison that keeps us inside. We trap ourselves in a prison of fear, suspicion, judgment, resistance, anger and hurt. We think we are protecting ourselves by not letting these guests in, or at least making our lives a little less unpleasant and complicated. But actually we are just trapping ourselves in a stuffy, dull, unpleasant, crowded and tense house. If we open the windows and doors, it’s true, we can’t know who will enter. We can’t control who comes through. But if we do not, our face will never feel the sun, wind and rain, the freshness, vitality and beauty of life. Nor will we feel the cold, the storm, the thunder and lightning, the damp and drizzle, the hail and sleet. They may be unpleasant at times, or even frightening, but they all have their beauty, the beauty of being true.
What haven’t you been hospitable to yet? Just examine yourself for a moment. It’s ok, we’ve all done it. What haven’t we been willing to really let in? What haven’t you been willing to really let in? Stop. See what it is. Take another look. Do you think you could let it in? Is there some way you could make friends with it, invite it in, allow it to sit down? You’re not falling into it or letting it take you over, you are just offering it a chair in the living room and allowing it to wander about the house. Can you soften into whatever that ‘unwanted’ guest is rather than shutting the door in its face? Can you see it with some compassion?