Posted on November 1, 2012 by AdAm Mayer
Every Shabbat when I sit down to eat dinner I start by singing Shalom Alechem, a song of welcoming angels. The four verses of this song begin as follows: “Shalom” – a greeting, “Boachem” – bringing in, “Barchuni” – asking blessing, and “Tzetchem” – leaving. I would like to suggest that this song can inform our understanding and practice of welcoming in guests, hachnasat orchim, which we learn from the actions of Avraham Avinu in the weekly parsha.
Vayera begins with Avraham sitting at the entrance of his tent. “He [Avraham] raised his eyes and saw: here were three people standing near him. He saw, and he ran to greet them from the opening of his tent and bowed to the ground.” (Genesis 18: 2) According to the model that Avraham is teaching, the first stage of hachnasat orchim is actively going out and finding guests. Avraham was not waiting in his tent, willing to host anyone who might come; rather he was sitting in his doorway looking and waiting for guests. I find it easy to read excitement and alacrity into his actions described in the pasuk. This is the verse of Shalom Alechem, teaching us to actively look for people to bring in.
Avraham invites his guests in, washes their feet, offers them to rest in the shade and gives them food (18:3-5). This is the second stage of hachnasat orchim that is learned from “Boachem”: Open your doors and let them come in.
The next verse in the song is “Barchuni” is more complex. It is true that in the parsha the guests (who happen to be angels) come bearing a blessing for Avraham (18:10). However, when attempting to understand this song as a paradigm for hachnasat orchim, it is uncommon that guests are requested to bless their hosts. One way to understand this is through the custom of asking a guest to lead the birkat hamazon (grace after meals). The guest will bless G!D, the source of all blessing, and the host will be blessed by having his house be a house of blessings. Additionally, there is a paragraph in some traditions of birkat hamazon that a guest is invited to say to bless his host. Another understanding of this element of the hachnasat orchim is the attitude that the host will assume during the length of stay of the guest. If the host treats every guest as a blessing then it will be.
“The men stood up from there and looked toward the direction of Sedom, and Avraham walked with them to send them on their way” (18:16). When it was time for his guests to leave Avraham did not just say goodbye and let them walk away, nor did he ask them to stay longer. As soon as they stood up expressed desire to leave, Avraham sprang into action and escorted them out. This is what the last verse, Tzetchem comes to teach; to help our guests leave on time, escort them on their way, and make sure they have the means to get to their next location.
I bless us all that we be able to practice hachnasat orchim in the entirety of its process, and by doing so spread peace.