Lech Lecha and Escorting Guests

See verse Bereshit 12:20
A loose translation: And Pharaoh organized an envoy of people and sent them with (Abraham) and his wife and all their belongings.

See Babylonian Talmud Sota 46b
A loose translation: "And Pharaoh organized a envoy of people and sent them with him." Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi said, on account of the four steps Pharaoh walked in escorting Abraham home, Abraham's children were enslaved for 400 years, as is written, "And they shall serve them for 400 years."

See Torah Temimah on Gen. 12:20
He explains that Rabbi Levi does not mean that the enslavement came as a result of Abraham's accepting Pharaoh's escort. This is not a sin. And in any event the reason for the enslavement is for other reasons as explained in verse 14:14. Rather, Rabbi Levi means to explain by what merit Pharaoh came to be the one to enslave the Israelites and not some other king. It is by the merit of his escorting. Furthermore, since escorting is a minimum of 4 cubits, it can be assumed that Pharaoh escorted at least that amount. This is the reason for the choice of the number 400 years for the slavery to last. This also teaches that escorting may be done by appointed agents instead of by ones own person since this is what Pharaoh did and his escorting is considered valid.

Pharaoh was the first to escort a guest. However, Abraham established the practice of hospitality in the Israelite religion. It appears from the above rabbinic source that he did not invent the concept. He learned it from Pharaoh.

Rambam considers escorting the highest form of generosity. It is not on the same level as all the other many types of hesed.
See Yad: Shoftim: Hilchol Avel : 14:1-3.
A loose translation:

  1. It is a positive rabbinic commandment to visit the sick, to comfort mourners, to attend funerals, to help arrange weddings, to escort visitors, to help bury the dead, to carry the dead to the cemetary, to walk in the funeral processional, to eulogize, to dig the grave, to fill in the grave, to delight the bride and groom and to help them with all their needs. These are commandments of generosity that one must fulfill with his person. There is no limit to how much a person may engage in them.

    Even though all these commandments are rabbinic, they also fulfill the Torah commandment of "Love your neighbour as yourself" which is interpretted to mean 'anything that you would like others to do for you, do it for your brother in Torah and commandments.'

  2. The reward for escorting guests is the greatest of all the rewards for the above acts. It is the law that Abraham our father decreed. He lived by this way of generosity. He would feed travelers and give them drink. He would escort them on their way. Hosting guests is a more important activity than even receiving Divine communication, as is written, "And (Abraham) looked and behold there were three people.(Gen 18:2)" Escorting guests is more important than giving them a place to rest. The sages have said "Who soever does not escort travelers is as one who murders them."

  3. The community must force people to escort travelers in the same way that they must force people to give charity. The Jewish courts used to arrange guards to escort people who passed from place to place. And if they were lazy in this matter it was considered as if they were murderers. Even one who escorts his friend four cubits receives great reward.

    What is the minimum amount a person must escort? A Rabbi must escort his student to the edge of the town. A person must escort his friend to the edge of the shabbat tehum (2000 cubits from the last house in the town). A student must escort his Rabbi for a mile outside of the town. If it is his principal Rabbi, he must escort him 3 miles.

This important mitzvah is often neglected. If we consider that escorting was for the protection of the guest we may think that today times are safe enough and police are protection enough that we may be exempt from this mitzvah. Conversely, today times are very dangerous for Jews, especially when traveling through foreign lands. This mitzvah is given a great reward because not only is it important to protect people, but because it is easy to avoid this mitzvah, to shirk ones responsibilty. No one will ever know if you did not escort some traveler. It is therefore the tendancy of people to avoid this mitzvah and come up with various reasons why it is not their responsibility. Therefore, the Rambam writes that the entire community must get involved as a whole, and with no exceptions. If left to the individual, no one would do it.

Hosting people is equally difficult for people. Often the thought crosses the mind of the potential host, "Why does he come to me, there are plenty of hotels." This is a legitimate argument. All the more reason to praise someone who generously does open his house to a stranger. The person maybe should not be asking you for a place to stay, but that doesn't mean you don't have to give him a place to stay. Remember Sadom and Gemorrah were destroyed because they did not offer hospitality. The concubine at Givah was killed because the townfolk would not give her and her husband a place to sleep.

It may be argued that now-a-days strangers may be very dangerous. But, it is likely they were just as dangerous in the times of the Rabbis. In fact, if a stranger seems to be dangerous then one should not invite him. But often the stranger is not dangerous. He's just strange. And when someone lets a strange person into his house it is true kindness. G-d will reward the host by letting him into His house, even though he has made himself strange to G-d by his transgressions.

© Nachum Danzig