Rabbi O’s weekly Parsha: Vayeira (Genesis 18
Imagine driving late at night on a deserted highway. Your car breaks down, there’s no cell phone reception, you do not have food or water, and there is no sign of civilization. All of the sudden, a car pulls over and a kind-hearted man asks if you need help. He offers to take you to his home, and you don’t have too much choice. When you arrive, he and his wife ask if you are hungry and when you say yes, they bring you a huge and delicious meal and continue to be wonderful hosts. You would be showering them with praise and forever grateful. Now imagine being stranded in the dessert, which is far worse than a car breaking down. When a car breaks down, even when there is no help in sight, one can sit in the car and be protected from animals, rain, and harsh weather conditions. This week’s Parsha begins with Abraham seeing three weary desert travelers.
And he (Abraham) lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold three men stood over him; and when he saw them, he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed down to the earth, and said: ‘My lord, if now I have found favor in your eyes, pass not away, please don’t pass by your servant. (Genesis 18:2-3)
In Jewish consciousness, we are taught that Abraham is the paradigm of kindness. One of the most telling stories about him is the one above, when he ran out to convince total strangers to be his guests on a hot day while he was recovering from his circumcision; he was ninety-nine years old at the time! It was certainly a great act of kindness but where, specifically, lies the greatness?
Firstly, how many of us actually bow down and beg people to come inside so that we may give them something to eat and drink? We might invite someone for lunch or dinner but to go out of our way for a total stranger simply because we want to be kind is something we don’t see too often. Imagine the sight, an old man getting on his knees and begging three strangers to come inside to eat and rest; we might suggest that he be institutionalized. Yet, our forefather Abraham desired so badly to help people that even an act that would seem insane to us, was the norm for him.
There’s another aspect of Abraham’s kindness, even more telling than the first. Abraham ran out to bring in the three travelers and asked them to come to his house to eat and rest. Their response and his subsequent actions are telling of his greatness. When we look deeply into it we will learn an important principle about ourselves and our relationship to others.
‘And I will fetch some of bread so that you may sustain yourselves for your journey’… And they said: ‘Do so, just as you have said.’ (ibid. v.5)
What did the three strangers mean by their remark, Do, so, just as you have said. What would you say to a stranger who has just saved you from an extremely hot desert and offered food, drink, and water for washing? You would be overwhelmed with gratitude and share your thoughts with your benefactor. However, instead of thanking Abraham, his visitors basically said, yea, just go ahead and do all the stuff you promised. No ‘thank you’ or expression of gratitude, but an important lesson.
When we do an act of kindness we feel very good-sometimes even snug- about ourselves and often over extend ourselves in an effort to please our beneficiaries. But all this usually comes with one condition: there should be recognition that I am the generous giver and the other person is an appreciative recipient. As soon as the recipient begins to demand, the kindness becomes less appealing to us and we let them know subtly or not so subtly who the boss is. It is easier to be a donor to an institution when the donor is honored at the annual dinner, given a plaque, and is treated as a VIP by everyone in the community. It is easier to be kind when you are appreciated.
Not so with Abraham. He offered his guests a bread and rest. They crudely responded that Abraham should do as he offered; they didn’t acknowledge his kindness in any way or even say thank you. But instead of getting angry or even mildly upset by their response, what did Abraham do?
So Abraham hastened into the tent…and ran to the cattle, took a calf tender and good, and gave it to the youth, who hurried to prepare it. He took cream and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat. (ibid. 18:6-8)
Abraham did the opposite of what some of us might have done. He wasn’t incensed at their lack of recognizing the good being done on their behalf, rather, he ran to serve them and gave them far more than he had promised! This is the essence of kindness; kindness for its own sake and not kindness as a way of making ourselves feel good, mighty, and elevated above those who need us.
Next time someone asks for help, think about Abraham, the archetype of kindness. If we follow his lead, we will truly be helping the people in our lives but more importantly we will be helping ourselves because with each act of true kindness, we reduce our ego. No one likes to be in the company of a “giver” who craves recognition and becomes angry when (s)he feels (s)he has not been properly thanked or acknowledged. Sometimes an act of kindness can actually be an act of selfishness if it is done for the wrong reason. I have met kind people-truly kind and sensitive-but their need to be acknowledged by those to whom they help, made it a challenge for them to have relationships. One woman told me that every time her husband does the dishes, he needs to be complimented for a while afterward. She told him that the price of his help was too high-she would rather do it herself and not feel like an emotional hostage. The same sentiments were told to me by more than one synagogue administrator; the amount of thanks demanded by certain people has them (the administrators) thinking, I would rather work harder to solicit more donations than to have to cater to the seemingly endless demands for recognition and honor that this person expect.
The next time we to do something for someone, let us remember the example of Abraham and Sara, who did not get involved in the drama of “if these strangers can’t appreciate our offer, let them leave empty handed.” Let us follow their lead and do kindness simply because we are Jewish and appreciate the fact that G-d is extremely kind to us even though we don’t always acknowledge Him for it. We are kind for no purpose other than it being part of our Jewish identity. Let us follow Abraham’s example and be the type of people we would like to be around.
(Source: based on a talk at Yeshivat Kol Torah byRav Gedalia Eiseman zt”l)