Rav Yisrael Salanter (1810-1883), founder of the Mussar (personal growth through rigorous self-introspection) movement, was once invited to the home of a distinguished community leader for a meal. The host noticed that when his guest did the ritual hand washing before eating bread, the esteemed Rabbi only washed his fingers, but not his entire hand. The host was surprised that the Rabbi did not adhere to the preferred practice of pouring water on his hands until the wrists. During the course of the meal, he asked Rabbi Salanter why he used the minimal standard of water for washing. The Rabbi explained that although it is preferable to be stringent and wash with an abundance of water; that is only the ideal if the person goes himself to bring the water. (In those days, before modern plumbing, people either hired manual laborers to bring buckets of water from a nearby well or they did it themselves.) Rav Yisrael Salanter explained that he did not want to make someone else have to bring extra water to the house just because of his own piety or desire to fulfill mitzvos in the most optimal way. He practiced a principle, which ultimately became famous for all students of Mussar: “Don’t be a tzadik (righteous person) on someone else’s expense.” If you want to use a lot of water to wash your hands or be stringent in some other mitzva, make sure that you are the one who does whatever extra work it takes. Don’t bother someone else so that you can be righteous.
This sensitivity of behavior has a source in this week’s Torah portion. The Parsha begins with G-d appearing to a ninety-nine-year-old Abraham sitting in front of his tent still in pain from his circumcision done three days previously. The Talmud teaches that he was waiting for guests to pass by so that he could invite them in but due to the heat on that particular day there were no passersby. Suddenly Abraham looked out and noticed three men; he ran toward them.
…please do not pass on from your servant. Let a bit of water be brought…and you will rest under the tree. I will bring bread and you can satisfy your appetite. Then you can continue on your way. (Genesis 18:3-15)
A few verses later we are told that Abraham and Sara prepared huge amounts of food, including meat, delicacies, and bread. Why did he serve food – meat and bread – in great quantity but only offered that “a bit of water be brought?” Why was he stingy with water?
A precise reading of the verse reveals something easily overlooked. In Hebrew, the verse says “water will be brought;” Abraham did not say “I will bring water,” as it says concerning bread and later with other food. This indicates that Abraham did not bring the water himself; he had someone else do it. Being as the kindness (bring the water for the guests) was done by someone else, Abraham did not want to trouble the water schlepper more than necessary. Therefore, he only offered “a bit of water” because he did not want to minimize the bother of the water schlepper. After all, who says that the comfort of the guests is any more important than the comfort of the person who has to transport the water? He did not want to be frum (pious), at someone else’s expense.
Opening their home and doings acts of kindness to strangers was something to which Abraham and Sarah had committed themselves; there seemed to be no limit to the amount of work they were willing to do to make that happen. However, they never inflicted that commitment on others and that is why he only offered the guests “a bit of water.”
For Jews, Abraham has always served as the paradigm of chessed (kindness) not simply because he was constantly involved in acts of kindness but because an aspect of his greatness was his ability to remain sensitive to others’ needs and dignity even when he was in the midst of carrying out his kind acts. Helping needy wayfarers does not grant dispensation to disregard someone else’s needs.
This principle has applications in many aspects of our lives. When a man invites guests over, was his wife “on board” or was he doing his “kindness” at her expense. When a woman volunteers her husband’s services to help one of the neighbors, was he in agreement or did he want to spend that part of the weekend doing something else? When a doctor asks his or her assistant to stay a few minutes late to help with a procedure, was the assistant asked? Perhaps he or she will miss a train or bus; perhaps there will be traffic 15 or 20 minutes later. Doing kindness for a patient should not come at the expense of someone else.
Some people think that a life of Torah observance is thoughtless and robotic; it is just following rules. But this is a big mistake. Even kindness, one of the greatest mitzvos in the Torah, must be well thought out before and during its execution. The following story, which took place about 20 years ago, illustrates a unique application of this principle.
A couple gave birth to a son and intended to name him Yonatan, after the mother’s deceased father. However, the day before the bris (circumcision), another child in the same apartment building, with the same name, had suddenly passed away.
The parents were concerned about giving the same name to their baby and they went to consult with the Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910-1995), one of the most renowned authorities in Jewish law, ethics, kabbalah, and just about everything else in the latter half of the 20th century. He validated their concern and told them not to name their child by that name. After they left, one of Rav Auerbach’s closest students asked why he had forbidden it. It seemed to him like some kind of superstition.
Rav Shlomo Zalman responded, “I did not say no for fear of the baby; I was thinking of the despondent mother of the child who had died. Imagine, in a few years from now, how she would feel every time she would hear this woman saying, ‘Yonatan, come in and eat something; Yonatan, be careful…’ Every time she would hear the name, she would grieve anew. As for honoring the father, whose name they had wanted to give to the baby, the greatest honor they can give him is not to cause anguish to someone else!”
Lesson of the week: When doing some meritorious deed such an act of kindness or even honoring the memory of a deceased parent, if doing so will cause physical or emotional pain, it would be better to refrain.
(Sources: Yalkut Lekach Tov pp. 75-76; Rashi 18:4; Bava Metzia 86b; Veha’erev Na)