The Me’or Einayim, Harav Nachum, the Rebbe of Chernobyl, put great effort into raising funds for tzedakah; he was especially active in pidyon shevuyim, ransoming Jews held captive by their gentile overlords on some pretext or other. He also often sent large sums of money to Eretz Yisrael, which was then under Turkish rule. The Russian government, which at the time had strained relations with the Turks, became suspicious of the Me’or Einayim’s activities, and put him in prison in the city of Zhitomir.
Every Thursday, Harav Zev of Zhitomir, author of Ohr Hamei’ir, would come to the prison. In exchange for a bribe, the guard would allow the Me’or Einayim to leave the prison for a few hours, keeping the Ohr Hamei’ir imprisoned as security for his return. The Me’or Einayim would go immerse himself in the mikveh, listen to krias haTorah, and make the rounds to raise money for tzedakah. Upon the Me’or Einayim’s return to the prison, the Ohr Hamei’ir would be released.
One week, when the Ohr Hamei’ir arrived at the prison, the Me’or Einayim informed him that there was no longer a need to trade places. “I will be freed very shortly,” he said.
He revealed that a woman had appeared at the door of his cell and told him that the reason Hashem told Avraham Avinu “Lech lecha — Go and set out on the road” was because Avraham excelled in the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim, and Hashem wanted him to be able to fulfill this great mitzvah b’shleimus, on the highest possible level of perfection. Therefore, Hashem told Avraham Avinu to travel, in order to know what it was like to be a guest himself.
“I understood from her words,” the Me’or Einayim continued, “that the reason I was imprisoned was because I am active in the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim. Without knowing what it is like to sit in prison myself, it would not be possible for me to do this mitzvah on the highest level. Now that I know the reason for my being here, I am confident that I will be released shortly.”
According to tradition, that woman was Sarah Imeinu.
This story teaches a very powerful lesson about how we should approach hachnasas orchim and other areas of chessed. As much as possible, we are obligated to try to draw from our own life experiences and use our imaginations to put ourselves in the position of our guests and those whom we are trying to assist, to envision their needs and to seek their comfort and happiness.
It isn’t merely what we do that counts — it is also how we do it. We must recall that it is a singular merit to be able to host others.
* * *
Chazal teach us that on the way back to Canaan from Mitzrayim, Avraham Avinu made certain to go to the very same lodgings where he had stayed on his way to Mitzrayim. One of the explanations given by Rashi is that he returned to these lodgings in order to pay his debts.
This is somewhat perplexing, since the Torah has informed us that when Avraham Avinu left Charan he took with him all the “possessions that they amassed,” which indicates that even prior to his stay in Mitzrayim, Avraham Avinu had the means to pay for his own lodgings. Why, then, did he have to settle his bill upon his return?
Harav Asher Zev Werner, zt”l, the Rav of Teveria, was famed for his exemplary dedication to the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. Doubtlessly based on his conduct, he once offered this explanation for Avraham Avinu’s actions.
Even when he was traveling, Avraham Avinu was determined to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim. When Avraham Avinu arrived at a lodging, he informed the owner that he wished to pay for all the others staying at the same hostelry. When he prepared to leave that lodging, he did not know how much longer the other guests were planning to stay. Therefore, only on his way back from Mitzrayim was he able to pay the bills that had accumulated in his absence.
* * *
A young bachur learning in Eretz Yisrael would often eat on Shabbos at the home of Harav Aharon Mordechai Rutner, shlita, who served as mashpia ruchani in the yeshivah where he studied. One Friday night, as the talmid arrived at Harav Rutner’s home in Batei Warsaw, his host personally opened the door.
“Baruch Hashem you are here!” he exclaimed. “I am all alone.”
When the bachur entered the tiny dining room, he was taken aback to see Harav Rutner’s son, a son-in-law and three grandchildren sitting around the table.
Noticing the bachur’s puzzlement, Harav Rutner explained. “These are family,” he said. “Without a guest, I am alone!”