A Treatise on the Individual’s Nothingness, and on his Transcendence – part 3

Rav Yair Dreifuss • 2018

‘hosting,’ is an event that must be passionate, stimulating and exciting. In our world, other people are usually seen as distractions, burdens, threats to our freedom and privacy. Every person needs a space of silence and stillness, ‘just me and God.’ But the ‘light that surrounds,’ – a light whose source is from the ‘guest,’ cause to the surprising revelation that comes from outside, in the form of a guest that happens to pass by.

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“My limbs run to greet guests faster than to welcome the Shekhina…”

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We now proceed to some thoughts on another kind of partnership: welcoming guests (hachnasat orchim) and accompanying them. Rav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa writes:

“‘Do not go on past your servant,’ (Genesis 18:3) - our sages learned from this (Shabbat 127a): ‘The greeting of guests is greater than receiving the ‘face’ of the Shekhina.’ And this is difficult: for in truth, how did Abraham come to this? The Rebbe, Rav Bunim of Peshischa, said that our forefather Abraham’s limbs were so pure that when he would come to do a mitzvah, his limbs would lead him to the mitzvah on their own… and when the guests arrived, it says ‘And [Abraham] saw them, and he ran to greet them,’ (Genesis 18:2) his body jumped forward to the mitzvah [translated from Yiddish]. From this it is proven that greeting of guests is greater. For (his) limbs ran faster to greet guests than to receive the face of the Shekhina…”

Rav Simcha Bunim’s teaching is of great consequence: the deciding ‘test’ is of the body’s ‘answering,’ reacting to the mitzvah, the stirring of the limbs! We all know that some of our actions come from a place of obedience - a fundamental fear of Heaven - while some actions are rooted in desire, longing, a stirring whose response comes from the body. Thus, Rav Bunim’s bold chiddush is even more striking. Firstly: the test of the mitzvah’s substance is in the arousal of the body and not in obedience (which is a constant, necessary but ultimately ‘low’ motivation). Secondly - and for me, primarily- is that man’s body, his most basic instincts, run towards a human encounter! The guests are the surprise: the sudden, awakening opportunity for the renewal of my own image.

The greeting of a guest is not a ‘mitzvah’ in the lazy sense of an obedient gesture alone. The face of another human being is the ‘face’ of the Shekhina; ‘hosting,’ then, is an event that must be passionate, stimulating and exciting. In our world, other people are usually seen as distractions, burdens, threats to our freedom and privacy. The subjects’ fundamental desire to be alone, draw energy from the ‘nothingness’ (ayin) and be ‘with oneself’ – it is true that this attitude is understandable and justified. Every person needs a space of silence and stillness, ‘just me and God.’ In Chabad terminology, this is the “light that fills” (or hamemaleh), a light that illuminates for itself; this is receiving the face of the Shekhina, the intimacy that one has with oneself.  Higher than this light, though, is the ‘light that surrounds,’ which illuminates the other - a light whose source is from the ‘guest,’ the surprising revelation that comes from outside, in the form of a guest that happens to pass by. Redemption comes at a moment of distraction; significant events and changes are revealed by happenstance, among the contingencies of existence. Everyone knows how to respond in a given, correct way within a familiar routine; but an incidental surprise provokes a raised eyebrow, a state of action and high energy.

The question is: can we imagine an exciting, turbulent happening in the world, one in the form of a stranger who is in my way? Is it possible to perceive this incident as such in an experience of life that is self-aware, laden with reflection and analysis, suspicion, fear and self-defense?

‘A fundamental question: who is the host and who is the guest? I would suggest switching the current order: if the event at play is defined as an agreed-upon meeting of one person in the territory of another, then in the framework of a relationship between an artist and a curator, the curator is being hosted in the artist’s private space, and the artist is hosting the curator. The studio space - where the artist works, practices, develops ideas and throws around concepts - is a very private area indeed…any connection between an artist and curator begins in this physical place, where the curator goes to meet an artist and begin to understand the system of understanding the artist’s personal codes…curatorial writing is a process of being a guest in another person’s mental space…whereas the curator (who is, to a great extent, a psychologist) remains nearly unrecognized, the artist facilitates entry into his own personal space, into his associative world and the system of ingredients and symbols that go into its construction…”

This beautiful excerpt goes to the very heart of the matter, not just in its discussion of hachnasat orchim but also in the very encounter of two beings, which is always oscillating between a conservation of ‘otherness’ and the ‘incursion’ into the other’s boundaries in a way in which  their identities dissolve, exchange and nurture one another.

The Rambam, somewhat surprisingly, teaches that regarding hachnasat orchim, the mitzvah of accompanying your guest is greater than that of greeting him; accompaniment is not a formal requirement but rather the consequence of a dissolution of ‘strangeness.’ Central to my contact with a stranger who enters my ‘borders’ is my ability to discover a genuine interest in my guest; the assumption that every person contains multitudes - a ‘universe’ of their own that seeks recognition, a knowledge of its existence, an opportunity to welcome others to its image and experience. We all know that feeling when someone takes an interest in us - in our thoughts, ideas and longings – in an honest way, unmarred by ulterior motives. In my experience, I have seen that people carry a ‘mute’ world inside, and they do not speak of it because they are certain no one will listen. But when the opportunity arises, and an open, caring atmosphere opens a person up to speak - then something meaningful occurs between the speaker and the listener. The apparent result is the accompaniment of the guest: the host follows the guest, he cannot leave him, his soul is bound up with that of the other. Every occurrence needs to be ‘wrapped up’: the accompanying of the guest, giving him that last bit of time and attention, enables a processing of what has happened, of “walking with it” a little longer. This is not just an intensification of mutual awareness between two beings; such an exchange holds the kernels of a true renewal in human relationships. I would like to suggest that doing a tikkun (repair) of partnership – “awakening of holiness” - in the relations between man and wife or guest and host is the approach for constructing a discourse of mutuality and unity between the individual and the community.

ישיבת שיח יצחק גבעת הדגן - אפרת, מיקוד: 90435