Giving and Receiving
At the beginning of our parasha Abraham is sitting in his tent, healing from his circumcision. At that moment, he sees three men nearby. The Torah says: “And he lifted his eyes and saw, and behold, three men were standing beside him, and he saw and he ran toward them from the entrance of the tent, and he prostrated himself to the ground. And he said, “My lords, if only I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass on from beside your servant. Please let a little water be taken, and bathe your feet, and recline under the tree. And I will take a morsel of bread, and sustain your hearts; after[wards] you shall pass on, because you have passed by your servant.” And they said, “So shall you do, as you have spoken” (Genesis 18:2-5).
This is a classic Jewish source for Hachnasat Orchim, the mitzvah of welcoming the stranger, or welcoming guests. As you may know, inviting and welcoming guests is considered a great commandment, a great honor, and a great pleasure at the same time. That is why you will see observant people trying to have guests whenever they are able to, especially for Shabbat and festival meals.
In the fifth verse from our quote it says וְאֶקְחָה פַת לֶחֶם וְסַעֲדוּ לִבְּכֶם, literally, “And I will take a morsel of bread, and you will sustain your hearts.” Most of us would probably understand here that the Torah means that Abraham is going to bring or serve bread for the three men, or that the men are going to take that bread and eat it. However, the literal meaning of the Torah here is that Abraham will take bread (apparently for himself?!) and the men will eat. So, what is Abraham doing here, giving or taking?
The Torah is trying to give us a lesson. Why is Abraham taking something for himself if he is really trying to give it to others? Because the Torah is telling us that when you give, you receive. When you help other people, you receive much more than what you give. When you give money, food, clothing, shelter, or whatever you are doing to help others, you receive a smile, a “thank you,” a hug, or a thank-you letter. But you also receive the great sense of feeling that you are doing the right thing, that you are doing what you must do.
In Judaism, helping others is not charity, not only a good deed, but it is an obligation. That is why we call it tzedakah, which comes from the Hebrew word “justice.” You are not helping others because you are a good person, but because it is our obligation as Jews and as human beings to help others. And when you fulfill your obligation you feel in your heart that you are doing what you have to do. And there is no feeling better than this one.
Yes, Abraham was giving food, water, and shelter to three strangers, but he was receiving much more than he was giving. The same happens to us: when we give, we receive!