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To Give Is to Receive: Lessons on Jewish Hospitality From the Book of Genesis

11/09/2012 09:45 am ET | Updated Jan 08, 2013

Two of my favorite character in the Book of Genesis are Avraham and his daughter-in-law Rivka. Avraham is one of my heroes, and I want to marry someone like Rivka.

Both Avraham and Rivka are famous for their hachnasat orchim, which means welcoming guests. Avraham is the first Jew, he thinks for himself, questions authority, and even argues with God. He is willing to be himself and do what he believes even if the whole world thinks he is crazy, which is why he is known as an Ivri, which means "he who stands on the other side." According to the Kabbalah, Avraham represents the character trait of chesed, which translates as "loving kindness." According to the midrash, Avraham had an entrance on every side of his tent so he could welcome guests from the four directions.

There is a story that after the third day of his circumcision, which is the most painful day after this type of surgery, while in the middle of prophetic mediation, Avraham got up in order to welcome guests into his home, guests whom he didn't know, but who turned out to be angels. For Avraham, he didn't feel like he was going out of his way but rather they were giving him a gift by allowing him to welcome them. It says in Pirkei Avot that a person should run to do a mitzvah and this is what Avraham did: He ran to greet them, washed their feet and made a feast for them. The sages of the Talmud learn out an incredible piece of Torah from this. They say, "Welcoming guests is even greater than receiving the Shechina." The Shechina is the "Divine Presence," which is revealed in states of high states of prophecy. The sages are teaching that to welcome another human being is even higher than prophecy.

Avraham's right hand man is Eliezer the Damascene, and Eliezer himself is an incredibly exceptional human being. According to oral tradition, Eliezer was one of the wealthiest most influential men of the city of Damacsus, and he puts all of it aside in order to become a student of Avraham and learn how to connect with the "One." Avraham sends Eliezer on a mission to journey across the desert to Avraham's land of origin to find a wife for Yitzchak. So because Eliezer is a very tuned-in being, when he goes to look for a match for Yitzchak and he arrives at the well by the entrance of Avrahams home town, the place where maidens come to draw water, he prays to God and says:

Let it come to pass, that to girl to whom I shall say, Let down they pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also: let her be she that thou has appointed for they servant Yitzchak; and thereby shall I know that though hast shown kindness to my master.

Eliezer is acting with kavannah (intention), he is aligning his will with Hashem's will through prayer in order to bring down a vision into the world. He realizes that whomever Yitzchak marries is going to need to be a giver. Right at that moment, Rivka enters into the scene:

And it came to pass, before he had done speaking, that behold, Rivka came out ... with her pitcher on her shoulder. And the girl was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her: and she went down to the well, and filled her pitcher, and came up. And the servant ran to meet her, and said, Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher. And she said, Drink, my lord: and she hastened, and let down her pitcher upon her hand, and gave him drink. And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also until they have done drinking. And she hastened, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again to the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels.

Rivka Imanu (our mother) in many ways embodies the feminine qualities of welcoming, giving selflessly and nurturing life. Rivka was living the teaching that human beings are made b'tzelem elokhim, in the image of God. When human beings are made in the image of God we treat them differently than when we see them with the eyes of the ego. With the eyes of the ego our mind asks, "What can they do for me? What can I get out of talking to this person?" When seeing human beings as made in the image of God, even a stranger, the question becomes, "How can I give to this person? How can I strengthen their life?" So when Rivka welcomes Eliezer and then draws water for his camels without being asked, she is telling him that his existence is a gift, that his needs are not a burden -- that I don't lose through giving but gain because there is abundance available at all times when we are tuned into the Source. Eliezer sees Rivka is meant to be Avraham's daughter-in-law and reveals his identity to her and his mission, and Rivka becomes the second matriarch of the Jewish people.

Last week, Hurricane Sandy left many people in need -- many guests who have been on long journeys -- and there has been an incredible outpouring of kindness to help those whose lives have been damaged by the storm. May Hashem bless us that whether or not we have the physical resources, that we always be able draw from the infinite well of abundant Love and welcome guests, receive them and strengthen them through affirming their Divine light within.