Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger
Ever since our earliest years the phrase "chesed l'Avraham" has served to focus us on the selflessness of Avraham Avinu and encourage us to emulate in some manner the magnificent welcome that he extended to the three angels. We can draw further inspiration and guidance from the careful study of this parsha and its medrashim, even as we have surely grown through helping others and from observing the "masters of chessed" with which our communities have been blessed.
While Avraham is lauded for every gracious move and gesture, there is one phrase in this week's parsha in which Avraham offers water to his guests, draws both praise as well as criticism. Throughout the parsha Avraham personally provides lodging and a hearty meal to his visitors, and speaks to them clearly and without hesitation. However, when he offers his guests some water, his language becomes formal and convoluted, "Please let there be taken a little water". Chazal noted the change, a formal usage of "please", the uncharacteristic "a little", and the distancing manner inherent in the passive "let there be taken".
Some of Chazal view this as praiseworthy, as one medrash attributes our sustenance during the desert years much later as a reward for Avraham's kindness at that time. The desert manna came in response to the butter and bread that Avraham provided; the heavenly and protective clouds were a reward for Avraham waiting on the malachim; and the "little water" brought about that miraculous traveling well that provided Klal Yisroel with water throughout their forty years of traveling. Yet, is it not strange that the provision of a little water won for us the most essential life sustaining divine gift of those years? Furthermore, the order of the presentation in the medrash is inconsistent with the way in which the events actually took place. This leads me to suggest that the medrash draws our attention to the way that Avraham phrased himself, rather than the substance of his offer. Indeed our sustenance came from heaven much as the milk and butter was brought before the malachim, and we felt Hashem's ever watchful clouds just as Avraham anticipated their every need. However, upon hearing, "please have yourselves a little water" the malachim were immediately made to feel that satisfying their needs was really no bother at all. That one word "please" allowed the malachim to feel that they were doing a favor for Avraham. Quite possibly they would no longer focus on the efforts being extended on their behalf. Much the same, for the vast majority of our years in the desert we came to expect the availability of the well water.
Nevertheless, there is another medrash, quoted by Rashi, that resolves the inconsistent grammar of this phrase in a way that is critical of Avraham. "Let there be water taken" is meant to instruct Yishmael to bring some water, instead of Avraham running himself as he did with all the other needs of the malachim. Because Avraham held back ever so slightly, the Jews received their water through a messenger, Moshe, whereas the manna and heavenly clouds came directly from Hashem. At first glance this is very surprising. Is it not the best of chinuch to involve one's children in acts of chessed? Do we not all assume that including our children in our projects and lifestyles gives us the best shot at establishing them as an enduring legacy? Perhaps Avraham wanted to be soft and feared being pushy; nevertheless, Chazal understood that in this case his thoughtfulness communicated timidity and the manner in which he called upon Yishmael belittled the very task he was assigning to his son. Chazal want us to understand that we should no doubt engage others, and certainly our children, but all the while stressing the great contribution they are making, rather than understating their efforts.
How precious is the advice of Hagaon HaRav Yaakov Kaminetzky Tz"l who counseled parents training their children to say berachos as follows, "describe to them in great detail the tumult in heaven as thousands of angels each proclaim the praises of Hashem, and how when a child makes a beracha, everything becomes suddenly quiet so that the beracha can pass directly to the Throne of Glory where it brings immeasurable pleasure to Hashem himself."