Why Only “A Little Water”? by Rabbi Benny Berlin

Avraham Avinu is the paradigm of a person devoted to the midda of chesed – acts of loving kindness.

This week’s parasha opens with Avraham still in pain from his recent brit mila, and yet sitting at the entrance to his tent, looking for strangers who might be in need of a place to rest and a bite to eat.

And indeed, “He lifted up his eyes and behold, three people… and he ran to them…” and invited them to his tent (18:2). The following verses delineate in great detail the elaborate banquet that Avraham spread out in front of his weary guests. Bread, the choicest of meats and the tastiest of delicacies were all proffered, all in generous portions. However, it is fascinating to note that there is one thing with which Avraham appeared to be stingy: “let a little water be taken” (18:4). A little water?! Why not offer the thirsty visitors plenty of water to quench their thirst and a cold bath in which to relax and wash?

The Or HaChayim HaKadosh asks this question. In his first answer, he says that Avraham’s minhag was to promise only a “little” to his guests. If he would make grand promises, the guests might feel embarrassed that they were causing him so much extra work. I heard another beautiful answer from Rabbi Citron. To answer the question, he related the following well-known story involving Rav Yisrael Lipkin of Salant.

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the mussar movement, was invited to a meal at the home of an influential individual. They began the meal with the traditional netilas yadayim, the washing of the hands for bread. Rabbi Salanter filled the cup with the minimal amount of water required by Jewish law. Then, he poured the water on his hands and made the blessing. After he took his first bite of bread, his host expressed his astonishment: “Rabbi!” He exclaimed, “Is it not written that he who washes with much water will be blessed with prosperity! Surely, I do not lack water, and you could have washed liberally. Why did you use such a meager amount for the ritual washing?” Rabbi Salanter smiled. “Who brings your water from the well?” “Why, my maidservant!” exclaimed the patron. “Surely I am not the water carrier!” “Aha,” declared Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. “You want me to wash liberally, thus more quickly depleting the water supply in the barrel. When the water barrel is empty, your maidservant will have to shlep more water! I should be a tzaddik at her expense? No! I would rather use the minimum amount of water, spare her the extra effort, and fulfill the standard requirement of the halacha.”

The Gemara (Yoma 28b) teaches us that Avraham Avinu kept all of the mitzvot even before they were given on Mount Sinai. If so, he certainly adhered to the laws of washing hands before eating bread. This is why Avraham Avinu only asked for a little water with which to wash the hands of his three guests (and attend to their other needs) — he did not want to be machmir at the expense of his servants.

May we merit to emulate the sensitivity to others exemplified by Avraham Avinu.