Please pray for a refua sheleima for
Michael Yaacov ben Chava Dvora
Parashat Vayera begins with the story of Avraham inviting three wayfarers he saw passing by his tent on a hot day, whom he graciously fed and cared for. It later became clear that these were, in fact, angels sent by God.
The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (86b) discusses several aspects of this story, including the parallels that exist between Avraham’s hospitality and God’s care for Benei Yisrael in the wilderness. Just as Avraham brought his guests bread and meat, the Gemara observes, God provided Benei Yisrael with manna and fowl; just as Avraham brought his guests water, God provided Benei Yisrael with a miraculous well; and just as Avraham escorted his guests as they left, God accompanied Benei Yisrael as they traveled, encircling them with the special “clouds of glory.”
Amidst its discussion, the Gemara notes a subtle difference between Avraham’s provision of water to his guests, and the other favors he performed for them. The Torah describes Avraham as personally bringing the food to his guests, but with regard to the water, Avraham said to the angels in extending his invitation, “Yukach na me’at mayim” – “Let, if you please, some water be brought” (18:4). The passive form “yukach” implies that Avraham did not personally bring the water for the visitors to use for washing, but rather had somebody else bring them water. The Gemara appears to criticize Avraham for this, stating that since he did not give his guests water directly, God provided his descendants with water in an indirect fashion. Whereas the other miracles of the wilderness happened directly, without any intermediary, the well was created by Moshe, whom God instructed to produce water from a rock. Since Avraham gave his guests water indirectly, by having somebody else bring it, God likewise gave Benei Yisrael water indirectly, having Moshe produce it for them.
How might we explain the significance of this point – that Avraham had somebody else bring water for his guests, and why does the Gemara find fault in this aspect of Avraham’s hospitality?
The Maggid of Kozhnitz, in Avodat Yisrael, suggests that the water brought for Avraham’s guests symbolically represents his efforts to “cleanse” them of their pagan beliefs and practices. The indirect manner of Avraham’s provision of water, the Maggid explains, represents the distance that Avraham sought to keep from his pagan guests as he worked to guide them away from paganism. Avraham was afraid of drawing too close to them, lest his own beliefs and character be affected by their beliefs and characters, and so he kept a degree of distance, symbolized by the indirect provision of water. The Gemara criticizes Avraham for this distance, the Maggid explains, because when one works to teach, guide and inspire others, no matter who they are, he must seek to fully connect and bond with them. While working to help “cleanse” other people of their wrongful conduct, it is important to build close, genuine bonds of friendship, and not keep a distance.
The precise practical application of the Maggid’s teaching is unclear – conceivably, there are circumstances when some degree of distance is appropriate, if not vital – but the broader message being conveyed is that there is more to hospitality than merely providing food and shelter. According to the Maggid’s understanding of the Gemara, Chazal detected in the words “yukach na” an ever so slight degree of emotional distance that Avraham kept between him and his guests, even as he enthusiastically welcomed and served them. And this distance, it seems, was a slight stain on what was otherwise an inspiring and exemplary display of hospitality and generosity. Chazal here seek to emphasize that beyond simply providing people with their material needs, we must also seek to provide them with emotional support, friendship, companionship and encouragement, that chesed entails not only practical assistance, but also a process of close bonding, helping people feel connected, respected and cared for.