I Samuel 20:18-42
by Rabbi Stephen Pearce
"Rav Dimi of Nehardea said: Hachnasat orchim — the welcoming of guests takes precedence over the beit midrash — the house of study…Rav Judah said in Rav's name: Hachnasat orchim — the welcoming of guests takes precedence over welcoming the divine presence — the Shechinah" (Shabbat 127a).
This talmudic comment that holds that hachnasat orchim is more important than study, or even the worship of God, should not be surprising. Early in Genesis, the author foreshadowed the Israelites' long, stateless sojourn in Egypt with the comment, "Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs" (Genesis 15:13).
The Torah is even more explicit about welcoming guests in this week's Torah portion, "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 22:20). "You shall not oppress a stranger, v' atem yedahtem et nefesh hagehr — for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt" (Exodus 23:9).
With 36 warnings against unsuitable behavior toward a stranger, no other commandment is referred to as frequently as, "Thou shalt love the stranger…The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:34).
Israelites remembered the bitterness of exile in a strange land, and chanted Psalm 137:1-6 to remind them of what it was like to be a stranger in a foreign land:
"By the rivers of Babylon,/ There we sat,/ Sat and wept,/ As we thought of Zion./ There on the poplars/ We hung up our lyres,/ For our captors asked us there for songs,/ Our tormentors, for amusement,/ 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion.'/ How can we sing a song of the Lord/ On alien soil?/ If I forget you, O Jerusalem,/ Let my right hand forget its cunning;/ Let my tongue cleave to my palate/ If I cease to think of you,/ If I do not keep Jerusalem in memory/ Even at my happiest hour."
Leo Tolstoy once commented on the remarkable nature of the command to welcome the stranger, especially given the nature of ancient society:
"'Love the stranger and the sojourner,' Moses commands, 'because you have been strangers in the land of Egypt.' And this was said in those remote, savage times when the chief ambition of races and nations consisted in crushing and enslaving one another."
Jewish folklore is replete with accounts of fulfilling the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim, especially on Shabbat when people vied to host guests in their homes. One such account by Hugh Nissenson ("The Elephant and My Jewish Problem") describes 12-year-old Jacob's home:
"We always had a guest on Friday nights, someone poorer than we, who had no place to celebrate the Sabbath. It was a religious obligation. On Friday afternoons, my father took an hour off from work to wander the streets of the neighborhood, looking for a Jewish beggar or a starving Hebrew scholar who slept on the benches of some shul…
"Very often on a particularly cold night, my father invited them to remain with us. They slept on the floor, covered by a woolen blanket. Their snoring made it impossible for me to sleep.
"'Papa,' I'd complain.
"'Shhh!' he'd tell me. 'Remember. "Tzedakah tahtzeel memavet." Charity saves from death.'
"He quoted the proverb (10:2) from the Bible in Hebrew, and I shut up."
Even on a Sabbath when Jacob's dying mother was hospitalized, an indigent houseguest was present at the Sabbath table. Later, Jacob couldn't sleep because of the beggar's snoring. His father called to him:
"'What's the matter?'
"'I can't sleep.'
"'Neither could I.'
"'But I feel much better now.'
"'Do you? Why?'
"'Because Mama will get well.'
"'How can you be so sure?'
"'You said so yourself.'
"'Did I? When?'
"'You said that charity saves from death.'
"'What's that got to do with Mama?'
"He suddenly raised his voice. 'Is that what you think a mitzvah is? A Bribe offered the Almighty?'
"'But you said so. You said that charity saves from death.'
"With that the beggar groaned in his sleep.
"'No, not Mama,' (my father said in a hoarse voice). 'Him' (pointing to the beggar)."
Tzedakah tahtzeel memavet — the belief that charity saves the poor from death — is but one reason why hachnasat orchim, the welcoming of guests, is so important. It is more important than study or worship of God because, for a Jew, this mitzvah has always been the pre-eminent benchmark for decent behavior.