Friday, October 26, 2007

The Road Taken

Posted by Benjy Ginsberg
A young man who I study with got married last Thursday. His Shabbos Sheva Brochos was going to take place in my neighborhood, and because he was from out-of-town, he asked me if I would be able find accommodations for some of his guests for Shabbos. Naturally, I agreed, offering to house some guests and trying to find suitable arrangements for the others. I was especially grateful for this Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim and its fortuitous timing with Parshas Lech Lecha. My kids had been singing incessantly about the greatness of Hachnosas Orchim ("it’s something we should do"), and I was eager to provide them with a real-life opportunity to see this Mitzvah in action, if only to get a little peace and quiet.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim: the guests did not show up. We waited impatiently, peering out the windows, hoping until the last minute before sunset that our guests would arrive. As I walked to Shul that evening, I was feeling a mix of bewilderment and annoyance. Actually, I was pretty steamed. I had spent the entire week running around for this Mitzvah, only to have the rug pulled out from under me. Not even a phone call. I wondered, "How would Avraham Avinu have felt if he had put all of his efforts into the Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim, only to never have it fulfilled?" Then it dawned on me: he went through the same thing.

Parshas Vayera opens with Avraham interrupting his visit from G-d to serve as host for three wandering men – angels in disguise. As the Midrash relates, Avraham knew that they were angels – without need for food, water or hospitality – but he was glad just to go through the motions of Hachnosas Orchim. Why would Avraham want to go through the whole hassle of preparing a meal and bringing water, when he knew that it was not really going to be the legitimate Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim?

Indeed, the Parsha contains a number of episodes where Avraham exerts himself for a good deed without ever seeing it brought to completion. When the angels take their leave to travel to Sodom, Avraham spends a significant amount of time and energy davening to Hashem to save the wicked city, knowing full well that the city did not have nearly the amount of righteous people it would need for Hashem to save it. And, at the end of the Parsha, Avraham’s Mitzvah to sacrifice his son is aborted before he could finish his task. Granted, Avraham was probably on board with not having to kill his son, but there is definitely a pattern of Avraham’s mitzvos being left incomplete.

All of these episodes of Avraham were, of course, part of the ten trials that G-d used to test Avraham. But they were more than that. Avraham is also showing that sometimes the preparation of a Mitzvah can be just as important as the Mitzvah itself. He is more than happy to run for his guests, pray for men he has never met or travel long distances to show his devotion to G-d. For Avraham, the journey itself is rewarding.

Actually, this had always been Avraham’s ethos, from the time G-d told him, Lech Lecha – "Go for yourself". This commandment was not just about getting to Eretz Yisroel, or just to have Avraham arrive at G-d’s chosen destination. It was also the act of going by itself that would be beneficial for Avraham. It would show his commitment to G-d, his willingness to sacrifice, and it would be the first step towards cementing a relationship with G-d that would lead to the eternal covenant between G-d and Avraham’s children, the Jewish people.

There are certain Mitzvos, then, that have other benefits than just reward in the next world. The preparation, the diligence, the journey to a mitzvah’s completion offer a different kind of compensation, one that has benefits for us everyday.

There’s a Gemara that’s said everyday during Birchos HaTorah, which underscores this concept (paraphrased from Shabbos 127a):

These are the things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come: honoring one's parents, the practice of loving deeds; early attendance at the Beth Hamidrash; hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, preparing a bride for her wedding; burying the dead; meditation in prayer; and making peace between man and his fellow; while the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

All of these things are tremendous Mitzvos. However, they don’t just earn reward in the Next World, they also produce for the doer in this World. That’s because these Mitzvos build character, teach perspective and create a harmonious world. People that involve themselves with chessed, Torah and prayer don’t just acquire Mitzvos, they become better people. And that is rewarding by itself.

So, guests or no guests, I definitely gained from the preparation. I spent hours devoted to trying to help other people, my kids got into the Mitzvah, and I learned that sometimes Mitzvos have benefits that we don’t see right away. For me, then, the message was clear: An unfulfilled Mitzvah can still be fulfilling.


  1. There's an interesting contrast here between mitzvot and sins. When it comes to sinning, fulfillment of desire is the name of the game. The process of getting there would be skipped entirely, if that were possible. If what you are saying about mitzvot is correct, then they are quite the opposite of sin. Getting there is the mitzvah.

  2. Avraham knew they were angels? Rashi certainly doesn't learn that way. According to Rashi, even when Avraham said goodbye he still thought they were people. Cf. Rashi to 18:16.

  3. Regarding your first point, I did not mean to say that the main component of a mitzvah is just getting to it - there is a unique concept of "Hechsher Mitzvah" that pertains to the preparations of mitzvos. But there are certain mitzvos, like Chessed, Torah and Tefillah ("Al Shlosha Devorim Ha'Olam Omaid...") where the path to the mitzvah has other benefits than just the standard reward in the next world, and that these opportunities should be taken advantage of, too.
    I hear your point about Rashi (although he doesn't say that Avraham thought they were humans, just guests). There are Midrashim that indicate that Avrham was cognizant that they were angels, although there are some that support Rashi's view as well.

  4. "Hechsher Mitzvah" would be what is done in preparation for the mitzvah. Here we are speaking of the act of mitzvah itself. However, we do know that "gmar mitzvah," the "kiyum," is ultimately the point.

    "although he doesn't say that Avraham thought they were humans, just guests"

    I don't get you here. If Avraham knew they were angels, what exactly is Rashi's point? What was Avraham's mistake?

    BTW, I was in Kew Gardens yesterday (Monday) do be menachem avel Rav Kalman & Shimi. Arrived in the morning and took a 2:00 flight back.

  5. I will have to do a little research into that Rashi. "Pushut P'shat" is like you are explaining it. Although I don't know why Rashi had to use the word "Orchim". Either Avraham thought they were angels or he thought they were men.

    I heard you were in Kew Gardens (I have my spies). Sorry I missed you.

    BTW, I love how you threw in that last sentence, like it's a private e-mail. Is anyone reading this blog?

  6. truth is, research shows this to be quite a popular blog. But thus far, I've rejected all requests from advertisers. Torah Lishma! :)

  7. Interesting discussion regarding whether Abraham was aware that his guests were angels.

    I guess it's a question of "What did Abraham know, and when did he know it?"!


  8. The Shelah says that Avraham was never sure what they were! He was careful that everything he said could go both ways.