|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)
After Abraham ran out to bring in the three travelers, he asked them to come to his house to eat and rest. Their response and his subsequent actions are telling of his greatness. ‘And I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may sustain yourselves, the go on… inasmuch as you have passed your servant’s way.’ And they said: ‘Do so, just as you have said.’ (18:5)What did the three strangers mean by “Do so, just as you have said?”
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 (or people) are appreciative recipients. As soon as the recipient begins to demand, the kindness becomes less appealing and we let them know subtly or not so subtly who the boss is. When a donor is honored at dinners, given plaques, a place of honor in the synagogue, and is treated as a VIP by everyone in the community, it’s easier to be kind.
Not so with Abraham. He offered his guests a bread and a place to rest. They crudely responded that Abraham should do as he offered; they neither acknowledged his kindness nor said thank you. They were in the middle of an arid desert and a total stranger offered them a place to eat, drink, and rest but they seemed unappreciative and merely said ‘step on it; just do what you said you would.’ If your car broke down on an abandoned highway and a stranger took you in, wouldn’t you thank him profusely? Being in a desert in the heat of the day is far worse that being a stranded in the safety of a car on the side of the road, yet the three guests didn’t respond the way we would have expected. Instead of getting angry by their attitude, what did Abraham do?
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. (18:6-8)
Abraham did the opposite of what some of us might have done. He wasn’t incensed at their lack of appreciation; he didn’t send them away and call them a bunch of ingrates. He ran to serve them and gave far more than he had promised! It was kindness for its own sake, not kindness used as a tactic to make him feel good, heroic or elevated above those he was helping.
Next time someone asks for help, think about Abraham, who formed the Jewish template of kindness. When we follow his lead, we will not only be helping the person but, more importantly, helping ourselves because whenever we exit our ego, we connect with our real selves. Even something as beautiful as being kind can actually be selfish—if we do it for the wrong reason. When we help others, we really help ourselves and this is one way to explain the Talmudic statement that says, one who receives charity helps the giver more than the giver helps the recipient.May we all emulate Abraham’s model.