Question: Who is the oldest person in the Bible to have been circumcised and how old was he? Answer: Abraham was 99 years when he circumcised himself. Even though he was in a lot of pain, he was distressed that no visitors were coming his way. Finally, he noticed three people at the entrance to his tent, and he offered them food and drink.
Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. I will get bread and you will sustain your hearts… (Gen. 18:4-5)
There’s an inconsistency in the text. Abraham explicitly says that he will get bread but that water “will be taken” rather than “I will take water.” Why water “taken” but bread is given personally to the guests by Abraham. Rashi comments that someone else (i.e. his son, Yishmael) brought the water but Abraham personally brought the bread. As a result, in the future Abraham’s decedents would receive bread (i.e. manna) directly from G-d but water would come through an intermediary (i.e. Moses striking the rock).
It seems that G-d was not pleased with Abraham for having sent some else to perform this mitzvah. Even though Abraham surely had good intentions by wanting to train Yishmael to do kind deeds, nevertheless he should have done it himself and that would have had a greater impact on Yishmael. Furthermore, people might have gotten the wrong impression that Abraham was slacking in his performance of mitzvos; he let someone else do it due to laziness.
Rav Moshe Feinstein (1895-1986) comments that people make a mistake and think that the main objective of mitzvos (i.e. kind acts) between people is that kind deeds are done but it really doesn’t matter who does them-the main thing is that they get done. This is incorrect because the very act of doing a mitzvah is itself a mitzvah. Many times it’s not practical to do the mitzvah ourselves due to being occupied with earning a living or physical limitations but if that is not the case, one should strive to do it himself or herself. For example, someone of financial means, who doesn’t have to work and has much free time, might donate money to a local soup kitchen and that is a wonderful thing. But it would be far greater to volunteer, to go there personally to do the mitzvah.
The Talmud mentions a story about the sage Mar Ukva and his wife. He used to distribute tzedukah to poor people. He placed it discreetly near the door so that the poor people would not know who the donor was. One day Mar Ukva stayed in the study hall later than usual; his wife came to get him. When they passed the house of one of the paupers, he placed the money in its usually place but suddenly they heard the poor man approaching. The fled, looking for a place to hide; the only place they found was a big oven whose coals had been removed but hadn’t cooled off completely. They went inside and hid for a moment. When they came out, Mar Ukva’s feet were scorched but his wife’s were not. She explained: “The difference between me and you is that you give the poor peopletzeduka money, after which they need to go out to buy and eventually prepare the food they will eat. I actually cook for them and give it to them directly. My merit (for cooking and giving the food directly to the poor people rather than distributing money) saved me from being scorched.”
That being said, it is obvious that giving tzedukah is nonetheless a delightful mitzvah that makes the world a better place; it is also pleasing to the Almighty. However, sometimes it’s just more convenient to make a few clicks on PayPal than it is to participate in helping to make some else’s life more manageable. But if you personally can ease someone’s load, pain, or heartache, do it. If you yourself can bring joy to someone, you will not only be helping him or her, you will be helping yourself. Sometimes a trek is better than a check.
(Sources: Bamidbar 20:11; Rashi 18:4 from Bava Metzia 86b; Drash Moshe p 12; Bastion of Faith p. 34; Kesubos 67b)
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