Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (known as the "Alter Rebbe," 1745-1812) was deeply engrossed in study. His intense concentration was legendary. But something caused him to suddenly stop his learning.

It sounded like a crying infant.

He closed the holy book he was studying, and rushed to calm the newborn—his grandson.

All the while, the child's father – the Alter Rebbe's son, himself a future Rebbe – was utterly immersed in learning, oblivious to the cries.

Later that day the Rebbe had a talk with his son.

Preoccupation with things grand and noble must not preclude the needs of those less fortunate"No matter how involved one is in an endeavor," the Rebbe coached, "however lofty it may be, one must never fail to hear and respond to the cry of a child in need."

On occasion the Lubavitcher Rebbe would add that this principle applies to the call of a child in knowledge as much as it does to a child in years.

Preoccupation with all things grand and noble must not preclude the needs of those less fortunate.

Guests of Honor

This profound and telling story echoes, and is possibly rooted in, another story—an episode recounted in the beginning of the eighteenth chapter of Genesis:

G‑d appeared to Abraham in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day.

Abraham was circumcised at the old age of ninety-nine. Surely, that must have hurt; hence the complimentary sick call G‑d paid His faithful servant.

As the verse indicates, he was sitting. Due to the still-healing injury, it was difficult for him to stand.

But wait!

[Abraham] lifted his eyes and saw; and behold! three men were standing before him. He saw, and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent and bowed toward the ground.


And he said, "My Lord, if it pleases you that I find favor in your eyes, please pass not from before your servant. Let some water be brought, please, and wash your feet and recline beneath the tree. I will fetch some bread so that you may nourish your heart, [and only] afterwards you shall pass."

They said, "So shall you do, just as you have said."

And so he did, just as he had said.

From this tale, the Talmud derives1 that "greater than receiving the Divine Presence is the mitzvah of receiving guests."

Abraham left G‑d "hanging" in order to feed a bunch of supposed heathens!Proof for this weighty statement comes for the Talmud's interpretation of the verse, "My Lord [with a capital L—referring to G‑d], if it pleases you that I find favor in Your eyes, please pass not from before your servant [while I provide for my visitors]."

In other words, Abraham left G‑d "hanging" in order to feed a bunch of supposed heathens!2

Not being prone to chutzpah – Abraham was also known for his awe of G‑d3 – he must have been setting a precedent very much aligned with, not contrary to, G‑d's will.

Hence the Talmud's observation.

Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah, when discussing the greatness of hospitality, reiterates the words of the Talmud almost verbatim, except for one pronounced difference.

As proof that hospitality ranks higher than G‑dspitality, he brings a different verse, an incomplete one at that:4 "He saw, behold, three men."

That's four words in the original Hebrew—four words that seem to tell us nothing. What did Maimonides see in this unfinished sentence that caused him to derive something from it? How do these words – on their own – prove that hospitality is greater than receiving the Divine presence?

Besides, why not use the words from the verse that the Talmud employs as proof?5

In the Presence of G‑d

Here's the law.

While praying the amidah, one must consider oneself standing before the King. (This is the reason why we take three steps backwards, and then forwards, before and after the prayer—it is our way of respectfully approaching, and then taking leave of, the King.)

Therefore, one must not speak throughout this prayer, no matter the importance of an issue at hand (unless remaining silent would be life-threatening).

These laws aren't exaggerated expressions of reverence for G‑d. They are no different than the protocol that govern behavior towards nobility. In bygone days, if one so much as twitched his eyebrow in the presence of a king, he could face capital punishment!

Even if we are ready to lose our own sense of self, we must never be ready to lose our sense of anotherWhen standing in the presence of someone or something powerful and awesome, one should rightfully lose any sense of self. Failure to do so implies that one finds the person or thing in whose presence he stands not so powerful or awesome after all. That's highly offensive.

If this is true regarding a corporeal king, how much more so concerning the King and Creator of all kings.

And if this is true regarding the praying of the amidah, when one must envision himself as standing before G‑d, how much more so when G‑d's presence is manifest.

Yet, somehow all of this reverence slipped past Abraham when he stood in G‑d's – revealed – company! He managed to notice the passersby smack in middle of communing with the Almighty; worse yet, in the middle of the Almighty communicating with him.

It was this ability of Abraham's, to never lose awareness of the other6 even while scaling the greatest heights known, or unknown, to mankind, that made him unique.

And it is this mode of behavior that we must learn to emulate. Even if we are ready to lose our own sense of self, we must never be ready to lose our sense of another.

This is Maimonides' unique contribution to the Talmudic dictum. His proof that hosting people supersedes hosting G‑d is not from Abraham's generous actions that resulted from his realization that there were people waiting to be fed. His proof is from the realization itself, that came to him even while standing in the overwhelming presence of the King of all kings.

Abraham's eyes, forever sensitive to those in need, managed to see past the blinding light of G‑d's glory and into a hungry man's belly.7

"He saw, behold, three men."

Thus, Abraham teaches us not only that receiving guests is greater than receiving G‑d, but how to receive guests while in the midst of receiving G‑d: by never losing sight of them in the first place.

What's in It for Me?

Life is such that we inevitably become preoccupied with things small and large, sometimes to the point that we fail to hear the call of our very own children, let alone someone else's.

It remains our honorable mandate to train our eyes to see like AbrahamWhether we are busy with matters local or global, spiritual or mundane, life-shattering or otherwise, those suffering children, in years, in knowledge, or in opportunity, rely on us to have them in mind.

It's up to us to sharpen our senses in order to detect their sometimes distant or even muted cry.

It remains our honorable mandate, and part of our time-tested tradition, to tune our ears so that they hear like the Alter Rebbe and to train our eyes to see like Abraham—through the exalted Clouds of Glory and despite the sweet study of G‑d's wisdom—into the tear-filled eyes and bleeding heart of a child calling out in need.8