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Holy Hospitality

Friday, 3 November, 2017 - 11:20 am

The Talmud teaches an interesting tradition about nail cutting.  When trimming fingernails, says the Talmud, one should not leave the trimmings lying around. The clippings represent the lowest form of human life. (Our nails – the furthest extremity of the human body - grow, but don’t feel pain when cut.) As such, they invite negative energy when detached from the body. The Mytsics and the Talmud, therefore, encourage proper disposal of nails.

This is what the Talmud states about nail cutters:

One who buries them is considered a Tzaddik (righteous). One who burns them is considered a Chassid (pious). One who throws them down is considered a Rasha (wicked).

The Talmud is suggesting that the superior method of disposal is burning. 

We can understand why a person who throws them on the ground – allowing the negative energy to affect others – is wicked. It displays a basic disrespect for others – just as many people would find it physically or hygienically offensive. But, what is the difference between burying and burning? Aren’t both methods sufficient to remove the spiritual nuisance from society?

***

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explained that, in fact, burying them has an advantage over burning them. According to the Mystics, it’s undesirable to destroy any part of one’s own body – even a part that has been detached.  Consequently, it would be beneficial for my own spiritual well-being to bury the nails, rather than burn them.  However, for society at large, there is greater benefit in burning the nails, so that there is no chance whatsoever that the negative energy lingers or becomes uncovered.

Now, back to the distinction between a Tzaddik (righteous person) and a Chassid (pious person). A tsaddik is one who is concerned with his/her spiritual status.  The most righteous approach, it follows, is to bury them, ensuring that my spiritual status is not compromised (via burning) and that society will likely be unaffected (due to their subterraneous location).

A  Chassid, however is not merely concerned with the law. A Chassid is striving to go beyond the letter of the law. Piety is putting others before myself. Even if it will cost me. Materially. Or even spiritually.  By burning the fingernails, the Chassid is hurting herself. Yet she is helping others – ensuring that no far-fetched scenario of harm can develop. To her, the remote chance of harming someone else supersedes the certainty of harming oneself.

***

This lesson is underscored in this week’s parsha, Vayera. G-d appears to Avraham. It’s a grand encounter.  In middle of this celestial conversation, three men pass by Avraham’s tent. He rushes to greet them – abandoning G-d!

Commenting on this apparent affront to G-d, the Sages declare, “Hospitality to wayfarers is even greater than receiving the Divine Presence.”

But, why indeed did Avraham prefer hospitality over Divine conversation? What convinced him that this was a superior spiritual path? Isn’t it counterintuitive?

***

Based on the above, we can appreciate Avraham’s holy instincts and the depth of his character.  Talking to G-d is indeed sacred. Helping others in need, however, is also sacred.

Faced with a choice between good and good, the selfless good is always the right choice. It may be less attractive. In fact, it may cause spiritual deficit.  But that’s the difference between kindness driven by a magnanimous spirit and kindness driven by selfless humility.

Avraham, the father of Judaism, reminds us that our own spiritual endeavors must never come at the expense of others.

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