Parashat Vayera begins with the famous story of Avraham’s three visitors – who were angels disguised as weary, famished travelers – whom he welcomed and for whom he brought water and a large meal. The Gemara in Masekhet Bava Metzia (86b) states that the miraculous provisions which Avraham’s descendants received during their sojourn through wilderness were granted in the merit of the provisions he offered to his guests. Just as Avraham fed his visitors bread and meat, God provided Benei Yisrael in the desert with heavenly bread (manna) and the meat of quail. Avraham brought his guests water, and God provided a miraculous well which accompanied Benei Yisrael in the desert to supply their water needs. And just as Avraham escorted his guests when they left his home, God accompanied Benei Yisrael during travel, providing the supernatural “clouds of glory” which protected them.
The Gemara here depicts Benei Yisrael in the desert as God’s “guests,” as wayfarers in desperate need of food, water and shelter, which God graciously provided them. Just as the mitzva of hakhnasat orechim requires us to offer lodging and provisions to travelers who are away from home, God Himself tenderly cared for Benei Yisrael during their period of travel through the wilderness, providing them with all their needs.
The Gemara further notes a distinction subtly indicated by the text between Avraham’s provision of water, and his provision of his guests’ other needs. Whereas Avraham personally served the guests food and personally escorted them after their meal, he had somebody else bring them water, as suggested by the way he expressed his offer of water: “Yukach na me’at mayim” – “Let a bit of water be brought” (18:4). Correspondingly, the Gemara writes, God personally sent Benei Yisrael manna, quail and the supernatural clouds, but the water was provided by somebody else – Moshe, whom God commanded to strike a stone to turn it into a well that produced water for the nation. The Gemara appears to criticize Avraham for summoning a servant to bring water for his guests, instead of doing so personally.
The message conveyed by the Gemara’s remark (as discussed by Rav Yehoshua Weitzman of Yeshivat Ma’alot) is that hakhnasat orechim involves not only the practical provision of the traveler’s basic necessities, but also personal attention. A wayfarer lacks food and shelter – but he also lacks a sense of belonging and a feeling of comfort. Travelers often feel disoriented and out of place, causing them a degree of anxiety and discomfort. And so besides food and shelter, they also need friendship and camaraderie. The Gemara therefore emphasizes the importance of not only ensuring that guests are well cared for, but that they are given direct, personal attention and made to feel as comfortable as possible. The goal must be not merely to ensure the provision of their practical necessities, but also that they feel welcomed and respected, as though they are in their own home.