August 7, 2018

Seeing the Shechina in one another (Vayera)

Parshat Vayera begins with Avraham sitting outside his tent having recently undergone his brit milah. As Avraham lifted his eyes, he saw three strangers passing by and he exclaimed “My Lord, if now I have found favour in Your eyes, please do not pass from Your servant” (Bereishit 18:3). While it would appear that Avraham was pleading that the strangers come to his home, the Gemara (Shabbat 127a) explains that these words were, in fact, directed to God.
According to the Gemara, when Avraham saw the strangers he was actually in communion with God, but when he noticed the strangers, Avraham asked God if He could be put ‘on hold’ so that Avraham could provide hospitality to the strangers. It is this explanation which led Rav to remark that:  גדולה הכנסת אורחין מהקבלת פני שכינה, providing hospitality to guests is greater than welcoming the Shechina (the Divine Presence).
In seeking to explain this statement, the Maharal (Netivot HaOlam, Netiv Gemilut Chasadim Ch. 4) writes that while we should endeavour to connect with God, this process is limited by the fact that we cannot see the Shechina itself (as we are told, ‘no human can see My face and live’ – Shemot 33:20). However, when we encounter a stranger and seek to provide them with hospitality, we connect with them by the fact that we see the divine image in them. Consequently, the act of showing hospitality to strangers is, in fact, a more tangible expression of connecting to the Shechina than communing with God directly!
A beautiful story which shows how to put this lesson into practice describes the time when Rabbi Leib Chasman joined the Chafetz Chaim for a Friday night meal in Radin. Rather than starting their meal with the ‘Shalom Aleichem’ as was his custom, the Chafetz Chaim immediately started reciting Kiddush, after which he provided his guests with some appetizers, and only then started singing ‘Shalom Aleichem’. Rabbi Chasman could not contain his curiosity and asked the Chafetz Chaim why he had changed his practice, to which the Chafetz Chaim answered by saying: ‘Having travelled so far today you must certainly be very hungry and I wanted to serve you first; the angels – to whom we recite the Shalom Aleichem – aren’t hungry and can wait a little’.
From here we learn that while we are encouraged to connect with the Shechina through prayer and Torah study, true greatness is achieved when are also able to see the Shechina in each other.

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