Avraham Avinu did not only perform kindness, he defined it, and he eternalized it. This week, the Torah tells us how three angels disguised as Arabs passed by Avraham’s tent a mere three days after his bris milah. Avraham ran to greet them and offered them food and shelter from the blazing sun.
“Let a little water be brought and wash your feet, and recline beneath the tree. I will fetch a morsel of bread that you may sustain yourselves, then go on — inasmuch as you have passed your servant’s way” (Genesis 18: 4-5). Avraham brings butter and milk; he slaughters cattle; Sora bakes. All for three total nomadic strangers. But his actions do not go unnoticed.
Each one of his services, every nuance of his actions, was repaid years later in miraculous fashion. The Medrash Tanchuma tell us that the Almighty repaid Avraham’s children for every act that Avraham did towards the nomadic wayfarers. “Because Sora and Avraham gave their guests bread, the Jews were given bread from heaven (manna). Since he offered water, so too, water from a rock was offered to the Jews in the desert! As Avraham washed the travelers feet, so too, Hashem washes us from sin.” And so on.
Even the manner in which the hospitality was expressed, merited reward. The Medrash tells us: “in the merit of Avraham saying “a little water be brought,” Hashem declares, that He “will thrust these nations from before you little by little; you will not be able to annihilate them quickly, lest the beasts of the field increase against you” (Deuteronomy 7:22). And so for saying “a little,” our enemies will disappear, little by little.
There are three powerful questions to ask. The first request, “let a little water be brought and wash your feet,” needs to be analyzed. Rashi tells us that Avraham did not bring water himself, rather he asked, “let water be brought.” He asked his servant to bring water. Everything else he did himself. Why did someone else get water?
Second, Rashi also explains that the water was not for drinking; for that Avraham gave milk. Avraham wanted water to wash their feet, as the nomads of those days worshipped the sand, and Avraham did not want that form of idolatry brought into his home. But that, too, needs explanation. If the water was meant to wash idolatry, Avraham, the greatest adversary of idolatry, should have showered and hosed the potential spiritual contaminants with a deluge of water. GEVALT! AVODAH ZARAH! IDOLS! Get them out of my home! Yet Avraham only asks, “Have a little water brought.” Why just a bit? Why someone else? And third, why is he rewarded for the words “a little bit of water?” Is getting only a little water meritorious?
Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin of Salant, known as Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, was invited to for a meal at the home of a wealthy individual. They began the meal with the traditional netilas yadayim, the washing of the hands for bread. Rabbi Salanter, opened the spigot, and filled the cup with the minimal amount of water required by Jewish law. He proceeded to slowly pour the minimal required amount of water on his hands and made the blessing. After he took his first bite of bread, his host expressed his wonder. “Rabbi!” He exclaimed, “Is it not written that he who washes with much water will be blessed with prosperity! Surely, I am not lacking for water, and you could have washed liberally. Why did you use such a meager amount for the ritual washing?”
Rabbi Salanter smiled. “Who schleps your water from the well?”
“Why, my maid!” Exclaimed the patron. “Surely I am not the water carrier!” “Aha,” declared Rabbi Lipkin. “You want me to wash liberally, depleting the water supply in the barrel. And then your maidservant will have to schlep more water! I should be a tzaddik on her back? No! I would rather use the minimum amount of water, spare her the pain, and fulfill the standard requirement of the halacha. As far as blessing for prosperity, I guess that will come from somewhere else. But surely my blessings, nor any religious stringency, will be carried for me on the back of your maid.”
Perhaps Avraham did not want to deal with the idolatrous sand. He did not to touch it or wash it. So he asked someone else. He asked an errand-boy. But if that was the case he made sure to say “a little water.” In no way would Avraham, the great rival of idolatry ask for more water than necessary. Because you can’t place the burden of your stringencies on the backs of others.
Dedicated by the Gluck family in memory of Milton Gluck
Copyright © 2000 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.