Gratuitous Gesture or Generous Gift?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Parshas Vayera is filled with monumental events in the history of our religion, including the birth of Yitzchak and the subsequent akeidah. The precursor to Yitzchak’s birth involves the incident that occurs in the beginning of the parsha, where the Torah details the visit of the three “guests” to Avraham. As we all know, one of their missions was to bring the news about the future birth of Yitzchak. Amidst an event of crucial import, it’s intriguing to note the attention paid to what would seem to be the least significant part of the visit — the preparation of the meal. From the exhaustive description of the food to be served to the numerous mentions of the great haste Avraham applied to the meal’s preparation, no detail is spared. Many commentators offer the explanation that this demonstrated Avraham’s dedication towards hachnasos orchim, the welcoming of guests. In fact, there is no doubt that this incident served as a model for how one should treat his guests. However, there is another, lesser known rationale for this detailed description derived from Pirkei Avos.

In Pirkei Avos (1:15), we are taught as follows:

“Shammai said: Make your study of the Torah a fixed habit. Say little and do much, and receive all men with a cheerful face.”

It is the idiom “say little and do much” that is the focus here. Nearly all the commentators on this statement point to the above mentioned story as the prototype of this behavior. The question of course is, how so? 

After first offering some water for cleaning and some shade, Avraham says as follows (Bereishis 18:5):

“I will get bread and you will sustain your hearts. Afterwards you will continue on your way, because it is for this reason that you have passed by your servant.”

The offer of “bread” then transformed into (ibid 6-8):

“Avraham hurried to Sarah's tent and said, "Hurry! [take] three measures of the finest flour; knead it and make cake-rolls.": Avraham ran to the cattle, and took a tender, choice calf. He gave it to the lad and hurried to prepare it.: He took butter, milk, and the calf he had prepared, and set it before them. He stood over them under the tree, and they ate.”

As one can obviously see, much more than a piece of bread was being given to the guests. It is from this very gesture, the initial offer of bread to the complete meal, that we derive this concept of “say little and do much.”

The Rambam, in his commentary on Pirkei Avos, goes a little further (1:15, #14). He explains that it is the trait of the righteous (tzadikim) to say a little but do a lot. Avraham personified this in his offer of bread and his ensuing delivery of a sumptuous meal. On the other hand, it is the trait of the evil (reshayim) to say a lot, yet fail to do anything at all. He cites the example of Efron, the man from whom Avraham purchased Ma’aras HaMachpelah in Parsha Chayei Sarah. At first, Efron offered Avraham both the cave and the entire surrounding plot of land at no charge. Yet, at the end, he ended up selling it to Avraham at a standard rate. 

“Say little and do much” – as an expression, it has such a nice, simple ring to it. A basic message to be taught to kids, a friendly reminder for adults not to, in common parlance, just “talk the talk.” Yet, to just treat this message, along with all others written by Chazal (the wise Rabbis) as moral advice and nothing more is a clear disgrace to the reality that there is always tremendous chachma to be gleaned from the writings of Chazal. There must in every instance be a deeper message, and looking at the two examples offered by the Rambam might help uncover the idea Chazal presents. 

There are a few basic premises to be understood before proceeding into the explanation. The first involves the nature of the speech being discussed here. The two examples indicate that Chazal are not referring to everyday conversations. Instead, the one common theme between the two is the offer made to the other party. In other words, as seen in the commentary of Rabbeinu Yonah on this very piece, the conversation here is, in reality, a promise of sorts being made by Avraham to the guests and by Efron to Avraham. This being the framework of the “saying” and “doing,” the next clarification has to do with the quantification expressed through “little” vs. “much”. It would not make sense to treat these as literal, quantitative descriptions. One could therefore assume that rather than referring to a literal enunciation of words, the idea of “little” and “much” refers to the nature of the offer. 

With these assumptions in place, let’s take a look at the example of Efron first. Efron, when approached by Avraham to purchase the cave, responded in front of a large audience and in a very public manner, insisting Avraham take the land free of charge. As the story progresses, Avraham counters that he cannot accept that proposition. Efron then responds that he will sell it to Avraham for 400 pieces of silver, and the deal is finalized. How does the Rambam, based on the idea of Chazal, see the “evil” in this action? It could be the Rambam is telling us that Efron’s motivation in making the offer to Avraham is where his flaw was exposed. Efron made an incredible offer, one that would seem to be the epitome of statesmanship. Yet his real desire was self-serving, to inflate his ego and show off his benevolence in front of his people — thus the insistence on making this offer in public. This is a familiar scenario, when one makes an offer guided by some self-serving emotion. Inevitably, when someone does this, the emotion begins to fade and regret naturally enters into the picture: “did I really just promise that???” Avraham, through countering Efron’s offer, created an opening for Efron to escape his regret, still appear magnanimous and respond with the offer he truly intended. We can now see the concept a little clearer. When a person makes a promise guided solely by a self-serving emotion, once the feeling wears away, a sense of remorse for the promise sets in and he looks to escape the responsibility. This is the trait Chazal are emphasizing – when an offer to assist is really there to serve the ego. 

Obviously, Avraham would have to be the opposite of Efron. Rather than being guided by some self-serving drive, Avraham was genuinely interested in the welfare of his guests. This fits into Avraham’s overall personality. He lived his life trying to encourage people toward monotheism, using his tent as a way station of chachma – wisdom. When he saw these three travelers, he understood both the physical and psychological discomfort that emerges through journeying. He pledges them food, but it is a general offer since his focus was on their comfort, not on impressing them with his largesse. His ego played no part in his desire to serve them and, as such, there would be no grandiose gestures and no subsequent feelings of regret. Furthermore, it meant there were no limitations to what he would prepare; his attention was on bringing them what he thought would satisfy them prior to the next step in their journey. Avraham’s haste in bringing the meal further shows that he had no resistance to accomplishing his stated objective, resistance that is often felt when someone offers more than he is prepared to give. The offer was guided by the correct ideas; the result was a sumptuous meal that transformed them from travelers to guests. 

As we can now see, the details of the first episode in Parshas Veyara help bring to light some very important and universal ideas. We see yet another insight into the personality of Avraham, how he constantly serves as the epitome of rational thought and proper middos. Through the words of Pirkei Avos, we see that even when self-serving actions are hidden in benevolence they remain self-serving. Avraham’s behavior reveals to us that true gestures of kindness require us to focus solely on the needs of others and not make promises our egos can’t keep.