Parashat Vayera begins with the story of the three angels – who appeared as ordinary nomads – whom Abraham Abinu welcomed and hosted. The Torah describes at length the efforts Abraham expended on their behalf, personally serving them food and standing over them to care for them while they sat and ate.
We know from last week’s Parasha, Parashat Lech-Lecha, that Abraham had 318 servants. The question thus becomes why Abraham did not delegate the responsibilities entailed in hosting his guests to his servants. Why did he go through all the trouble to care for the three guests if he had a large team of workers to do so? This point becomes especially noteworthy in light of the fact that Abraham was ninety-nine years old and had just undergone circumcision. He was obviously physically frail, and yet he made a point of personally tending to his guests.
It is explained that a host shows honor to his guests by personally tending to their needs, rather than asking his housekeeper or family members to do so for him. Hospitality entails more than simply providing the guests with their basic needs. It also requires making the guests feel at ease and feel respected. As such, it is important to not just ensure that their needs are cared for, but to personally involve oneself in this undertaking.
As mentioned, the three angels who visited Abraham appeared as simple nomads. Abraham did not think they were distinguished statesmen or great Rabbis. They were ordinary people. Even so, he insisted on giving them the respect of personally tending to them, rather than delegating this role to his servants.
Rav Avraham Pam (1913-2001) applied this lesson to the common situation of charity collectors. Often, when a collector comes to the door, we give a young child a bill and have him bring the money to the collector. While our motives are sincere – to train the child in the special Misva of charity – we fail to realize that this is demeaning to the collector. A person who knocks on the door needs not only financial assistance, but also comfort and dignity. And we cannot fulfill this need unless we personally greet him and speak to him with respect. Rav Pam therefore urged people to bring their child with them to the collector when giving him money, rather than delegate the job to the child.
Children are very perceptive, and they note the difference between the way we welcome distinguished guests and the way we deal with others. It is important for them to see us show every visitor respect. If Abraham personally served three guests whom he thought were simple nomads, then we must likewise treat all people with respect and dignity.