The parents of the Baal Shem Tov were famous for their hospitality. Each Shabbos they would find poor travelers with no place to stay and welcome them into their home for the Sabbath. They would feed them and house them, and, when Shabbos ended, give them money and food for their travels. God took note of them and their generosity, and as often happens when God takes note of us, so, too, did Satan, the Accuser.
God wished to bless these people with a child, but Satan desired to test their hospitality to see whether in fact they gave freely, or if in their hearts they harbored a hope of some heavenly reward. Sensing that Satan would not only test the couple but actively seek to trap them, Elijah the Prophet offered to go in his stead. God agreed, and the following, Shabbos Elijah returned to earth.
Disguised as a beggar and carrying a staff and knapsack in violation of the Sabbath, Elijah knocked on the couple’s door that Shabbos afternoon. Reb Eliezer opened the door, and the beggar pushed him aside and entered his home. “Good Shabbos,” he said. “I am hungry and in need of shelter!”
Reb Eliezer welcomed the beggar, and his wife served him the Third Meal of the Sabbath. The man ate and rested. He gave no thanks to either his hosts or his Maker. In the evening when Shabbos had ended, the couple prepared the Melaveh Malkah for him. Again the man ate without any sign of gratitude. He spent the night in their home, and in the morning he was given food and sufficient money to see to his welfare. At that moment the beggar revealed himself to be Elijah the Prophet.
“I came to test your hospitality,” the Prophet said, “to see the quality of your giving. And because you were gracious to me and never once commented on my insulting behavior, nor shamed me in any way, you have passed my test. God is pleased with my findings and finds you worthy of a son who will illumine the eyes of all Israel.” That son was the Baal Shem Tov.
Shabbos: Shabbat, the seventh day of the week.
Satan: The Hebrew word satan (pronounced sah-tahn) means “adversary.” In later books of the Bible, Satan becomes a person, God’s “prosecuting attorney.”
Elijah: A ninth-century – B.C.E. prophet who avoided death and rose to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kings 2). In rabbinic lore, Elijah returns to earth to help people in need.
Notes in celebrating the Sabbath:
Carrying things outside the home on the Sabbath is considered work and therefore violates the prohibitions against working on the Sabbath.
In Exodus 16:25, Moses instructs the people regarding Sabbath meals. He uses the word “today” three times, which led to eating three Sabbath meals: Friday evening, Saturday noon, and a late afternoon meal called Shalosh Seudos, or Seuda Shlishit, the Third Meal.
Melaveh Malkah (“accompanying the Queen”): A celebratory meal at the conclusion of the Sabbath ushering the Sabbath Queen back to heaven until the following Sabbath.
What is it about opening our door to strangers that makes this a central spiritual quality? The Torah tells us to love our neighbor only once (Leviticus 19:18) but urges us to love the stranger more than thirty times! Why? Hospitality requires that we step beyond the dualistic thinking of self and other, us and them. You open your door only after you have opened your heart. Hospitality is then an accurate reflection of the quality of your spirituality.
One who loves God but fears the stranger is one who doesn’t understand God at all. God is the Other manifest in all others. The Besht’s parents saw God manifest in every stranger and thus were no longer strangers to God. Loving God and loving the stranger are not two different things, but two different ways of honoring the same thing: the insight that all is God. Their intimacy with God translated into intimacy between themselves, which in turn gave birth to the Baal Shem Tov, who showed the world the One in whom all others dwell.