The Tisch: Invite a person, host an angel

The mystery that shrouds Reb Leib Sarah's character was born of his vocation.

tisch 58 (photo credit: Courtesy)
tisch 58
(photo credit: Courtesy)
One of the more mysterious characters of theearly period of Hassidism was Reb Leib Sarah's. Born in 1731, his lifespanned the formative years of the hassidic movement. His name - RebLeib Sarah's - indicates that he came from a locale where there wasmore than one lad called Leib and to distinguish him from hiscounterpart, he was known by his mother's name; that is, which Leib -Sarah's Leib.
Accordingto hassidic tradition, Reb Leib Sarah's knew the Baal Shem Tov (ca.1700-1760) and later was a follower of Rabbi Dov Ber the Maggid ofMezritch (died 1772). He outlived these two greats of the nascentmovement. By the time he passed away in 1790, Hassidism was already inthe third generation and could seriously be considered a movement.
The mystery that shrouds his character was born of hisvocation. Unlike many of his more famous counterparts, Reb Leib Sarah'sdid not opt for a career in the rabbinate nor did he lead a following.Instead, he wandered the towns of Poland spreading the message ofHassidism wherever he went. Reb Leib Sarah's did not leave behind adynasty of hassidic masters, nor did he bequeath writings of note. ThusReb Leib Sarah's continued to live only in the tales of the hassidim.
The obscurity of this character led one modern hassidic masterto question whether Reb Leib Sarah's should be identified with anotherhassidic master, R. Leib of Shpola, known as the Shpoler Zeide (thegrandfather from Shpola, 1724-1811). While they had the same first nameand were both sons of a Sarah, we know this identification to beinaccurate for the former's father was Yosef and the latter's Baruch.Moreover, the dates of their lives differ. The confusion only furtherillustrates the haziness surrounding Reb Leib Sarah's life.
On his travels Reb Leib Sarah's would often stop inLwów (today Lviv, Ukraine) and stay at a certain wealthy person's home.It happened once that Reb Leib Sarah's came to Lwów and arrived at thehome of his usual host only to find the wealthy man not home.Unperturbed, Reb Leib Sarah's asked one of the servants for a room tostay. The servant, who had not previously met Reb Leib Sarah's, excusedhimself to go find his master and get permission.
"Master, there is a visitor at your home who is requesting aroom." The wealthy man impatiently waved his hand: "Let the man go toone of the guest houses in the city."
In the meantime, word spread that Reb LeibSarah's had arrived in Lwów. When the news reached the wealthy man'sears, he immediately understood his error and he hurried to find RebLeib Sarah's: "My teacher, please forgive my mistake, I knew not thatit was you who requested a room. Please do me the honor of staying atmy house, as you have done in the past."
Reb Leib Sarah's refused: "In our tradition, Abraham is theparadigm of welcoming guests, yet in truth his nephew Lot also welcomedguests [see Genesis 19:1-3]. In many ways, Lot's hospitality wasgreater than Abraham's for Lot lived amongst evil people, and despitethis harsh environment he still welcomed guests. Moreover, when theguests at first refused his invitation, Lot persisted until theyeventually agreed to come to his home. We find no such effort exertedby Abraham! Welcoming guests should be modeled after Lot, not Abraham!"
Reb Leib Sarah's explained why such a reading was flawed: "Intruth, Lot was not a particularly hospitable person but when he sawangels approaching Sodom, he hurried to greet them and bow down beforethem. Who would not want to invite angels into their home! Abraham, incontrast, saw three people approaching [see Genesis 18:2]. It wastoward three people - not three angels - that Abraham ran. This is truehospitality."
It is no challenge to accord honor to the honorable. Truehospitality is inviting people who do not look like angels into ourhomes. Indeed, those who invite people into their homes, those whoaccord honor to other humans, may quickly realize - as Abraham realized- that they have indeed welcomed angels who may bring them goodtidings.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.