When Giving is Really Giving (and when it’s not)

Avraham Avinu interrupts a moment of Divine revelation in
order to receive some guests. From this we learn that hachnasas orchim
(receiving guests) is greater than kabalas pnei hashechina (receiving the
Divine Presence). What we would have characterized as rudeness on a cosmic scale
becomes a moral example for all the generations. Evidently, Avraham knew what he
was doing—his conduct earned the imprimatur of Chazal—but what was the logic of
it?

The foundation of the world is chesed. HaShem created
the world in order that there should exist a creature to whom He can give
benefit. And since HaShem wanted to give the greatest good, He created the
neshama, which He placed in this physical world where it could attain a
relationship of closeness with Him, which is the ultimate good.

Before creation, nothing existed other than HaShem. He
contracted Himself, so to speak, relinquishing something of His place in order
for something else to exist. It was, in a sense, an act of hachanas orchim.
Likewise, when a person invites guests into his home, where he is like a king in
his castle, he must make room, he must diminish himself for the sake of his
guests.

The purpose of Divine revelation is to enable us to know
something of HaShem’s midos, those character traits which he projects onto the
world to show us how He wants us to be. When Avraham interrupted his visit from
HaShem to tend to his unexpected visitors, he was fulfilling the very purpose of
revelation by emulating HaShem’s primary trait of chesed. That is why
hachnasas orchim
is greater than kabalas pnei hashchina—because it
represents its fulfillment.

Yet, the way in which Avraham accommodated his guests seems
oddly substandard. Instead of bringing them into his home and serving them
royally, he put them under a tree and gave them a picnic, with milk and dairy!

Rav Dessler says that the world is divided into two types of
people: givers and takers. We should all strive to be givers, like HaShem. But
appearances are deceiving; what looks like giving is sometimes really taking,
and what looks like taking is sometimes really giving.

The heart is one of the symbols of giving—lev tov—because
it’s constantly pumping blood to the whole body. But the truth is, the heart
receives as much blood as it gives out. So why is the heart a symbol of giving
more than taking? Because it takes blood in only to give it back out to the rest
of the body. The taking is itself transformed into an act of giving, because it
is an essential part of the process of giving.

People used to come to the Satmar Rebbe for blessings, and
the custom was to leave money. Some were very rich, and they would leave $100 or
$1,000, and the Rebbe would put the money in his pockets until they were bulging
with bills. Then, when a poor person would enter, the Rebbe would reach into a
pocket, and without looking (he never looked at what he was taking or giving)
would give him something. Was the Satmar Rebbe a taker? No. He took in order to
give.

You can also be a giver who is really a taker. Someone
travels twelve hours on a plane to the States, didn’t sleep much, is suffering
from jet lag, all he wants is a bed. Not food or talk, just a bed to sleep in.
But what kind of host can one be if he doesn’t serve a lavish meal and entertain
his guest with scintillating conversation?

Meanwhile, the poor, tired guy is sitting there with
toothpicks in his eyes, trying to stay awake so as not to offend his host. Who’s
giving and who’s taking?

Why didn’t Avraham bring the guests into the house? Why did
he serve them dairy? They said that they were in a hurry. Had he invited them
inside, it might have been an inconvenience for them. Once in the house, it’s
bad manners to just pick up and leave. But if you’re just under a tree, it’s
much easier. And dairy is quick. But if they weren’t really in a hurry, and just
didn’t want to impose on their host, then Avraham was ready with the finest
meats, and they were certainly welcome to enjoy their meal inside, as well. This
was true chesed. Avraham was concerned with the needs of his guests, not just
promoting his image for great hospitality. It was real giving, not taking
disguised as giving.