Kindness Through a Messenger – A Deficiency?
In this week’s Torah reading, Avraham Avinu (our patriarch Abraham) welcomed three guests, who were angels disguised as humans. Avraham then went to prepare a full meal for his guests. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) determines from the language used to describe his hospitality, that Avraham had sent a messenger to get water for his guests instead of attending to it himself. Our Sages tell us (ibid), that just as Avraham had neglected to serve the water himself for the guests, and instead did so through a messenger, so too, God gave water to his descendants, the Jews in the desert, in an indirect manner. The water was granted to them through a messenger, when God sent Moses to provide the Jews in the desert with water.
This passage of the Talmud seems to indicate that Avraham did something wrong, and that ideally, he should have served the water himself. What could possibly be wrong with sending someone else to provide his guests with water? It’s not like Avraham neglected his guests in any way, as is evident from the rest of the story. He sat with his guests and prepared a fancy meal for them – three whole tongues, one for each of them! Why did God consider the mere fact that he didn’t get the water himself to be a deficiency in his conduct?
Why is Kindness Important?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (in Darash Moshe) answers this question with a remarkable insight. When we engage in acts of kindness, we think that the purpose of our actions is to help the needs of the one whom we are helping. However, this is truly only a secondary purpose. The main beneficiary of our acts of kindness is ourselves. Truthfully, God could provide anything for anyone in many different ways. God doesn’t need us to be the ones to provide help for those in need. God can figure out how to achieve the desired results without our participation. But when we engage in helping others, we elevate our souls and earn ourselves merits, and this is what God desires.
We Are the Beneficiaries Of Our Kindness
God provides us with opportunities to benefit ourselves by doing mitzvot (fulfillments of God’s will) and extending ourselves to help those in need. And so, if doing favors for others was all about providing the results, perhaps there would be nothing lacking by doing so though a messenger. But as far as the act of improving oneself, it is not the same as when one is personally, actively involved. Our Sages say (Kiddushin 41a), “It is a greater mitzvah to perform a mitzvah with oneself than though a messenger” – because when one is personally involved in the mitzvah, the personal involvement adds to the improvement of one’s soul which is gained by performing the mitzvah. Because Avraham lacked this aspect of perfection in providing his guests with water by doing so through a messenger, consequently, his descendants received their water only via a messenger.
Searching Out Mitzvot For Our Own Spiritual Gain
This concept doesn’t apply only to acts of kindness, but to all areas of serving God. When we push ourselves to do a mitzvah, we feel like we are doing God a big favor. Our attitude towards mitzvot in general is one of feeling that these are deeds God wants us to perform for His sake, and the goal is to get the deed done. But the complete opposite is true. Every opportunity for a mitzvah is gift presented to us by God for our best interest. The point is the personal, spiritual gain that we will have from involving ourselves in the mitzvah.
The Mitzvah Garden
When the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Aharon Rokeach, moved to Israel and got settled, he embarked on a gardening project. He arranged to have some vegetation grow on his property, and saw to it that he acquired proper gardening equipment. No one understood what this was about. He hadn’t done this previously, and it was obviously not just a hobby. What was the point of this garden?
Then, Shemittah came, the sabbatical year in which we are commanded to refrain from working the land in the Land of Israel. The Rebbe made sure to put all the gardening tools away to abstain from any work on the garden. Then, people understood what the point of the garden was. The Rebbe wanted to be in a position in which he can observe the mitzvah of Shemittah by having a garden which he wouldn’t work. He deliberately orchestrated an opportunity to be involved in observing another special mitzvah.
This concept presents a new outlook on mitzvot. The focus shouldn’t be about just getting the mitzvah done. Mitzvot are not about merely having certain deeds accomplished. Mitzvot are opportunities we ought to seek out to get involved in. Every opportunity for a mitzvah is another opportunity to elevate our souls by getting involved as much as possible in the service of God.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber email@example.com