(Courtesy: Yrachmiel Tilles)
Once a Jew came to Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev to pour out his heart. He was a well to do business man and had dedicated a substantial amount of money and personal time to the mitzvah of hachnoses orchim-“receiving guests.” He had a special wing in his house built for the various guests who came his way, including a staff of cooks, maids and attendants to see to their needs. His homemade beer and wine, and freshly baked bread was served to his guests just like to his own family. The wealthy were treated like royalty, and the poor were treated like the wealthy. What went wrong?
“Rebbe”, lamented the gentlemen, “I can’t believe my eyes, I can’t believe that it is true. Early this morning my entire mansion burned to the ground. Everything was consumed, nothing is left.
“If it were only my living quarters I wouldn’t be so distraught”, he continued in a pained voice, “but the entire hospitality project is lost. I don’t know why this happened! What did I do to warrant such ruin?”
The Berditchever sunk deep into thought for a few minutes then looked up compassionately at the man standing in anguish before him.
“Tell me”, he began quietly, “when the guests came, did you give them food to eat?”
“Yes”, answered the distraught man, “I gave them the my best. Fresh bread and vegetables from my garden were always on the tables. The chickens were from my own coops. I could go on, but believe me Rebbe, nothing was spared.”
The rebbe continued. “And when they came they also received drinks?”
“Yes of course. I supplied homemade wine and beer, and the water was from a well newly dug especially for the guests.”
“And did you offer them a place to rest if they were weary, or even to sleep over?” asked the rebbe.
“Certainly,” the man responded. “As I told you, I had a separate wing with rooms and apartments just for guests.”
“And when they left”, queried the Berditchever, “did you give them an escort out of town, like Avraham Avinu did with his guests?” (Gen. 18:16)?
“Well, that is one thing that was very difficult to do”, conceded the man. “Since I am either at my business or busy with guests still on the premises, I would have a hard time accompanying each guest on his way.”
“Now”, concluded the Berditchever, “you have your answer.” “You see, a Jew is required to provide his guest with “aishel” (food, drink and escort).*** You however, only provided them with food and drink, as represented by the first two letters, but those two letters alone also spell aish — fire. So fire is what you got in return.”
*** “Avraham planted a tamarask in Beersheva.” (Gen. 21:33). The Tamarisk tree is called in Hebrew AiSHeL (aleph, shin, lamed). Rav and Shmuel, two important Talmudic sages, disagreed over exactly what this aishel was (Tractate Sotah 10a). Rav stated that it was a real tree that provided fruits for Avraham’s guests. Shmuel interpeted that Avraham established an inn for guests and travelers. In truth, both explanations are fitting. We also saw that Avraham had the three angels disguised as men rest and eat under a tree (his inn?) when they first arrived (Gen. 18:4,8).
Both sages agreed that word aishel also functions as an acrostic:
alef = ochel (food); shin = shtiah (drink); lamed = levya (escort).
Some, however, say that lamed = lina (sleeping accommodations), while others say that the shin stands for the sleeping accommodations (shinah), the lamed remains levya (escort), and the alef for ochel includes drink with the food.