Perhaps the most important act of chesed in world history takes place at the beginning of this week’s parsha: On the third day after surgery, Avraham Avinu welcomes guests into his home.
The Gemara explains how Avraham’s acts of kindness led to similar favors being done to Bnei Yisrael in the desert. Because Avraham gave the malachim bread, Bnei Yisrael got mahn; similarly, the water Avraham supplied caused the well to give water.
While it’s true that Avraham’s actions on that day were on a remarkably elevated level, there is another story in this week’s parsha that seems to surpass it. Lot risks his life by welcoming guests into his home. Likewise, the Midrash relates the story of Lot’s daughter who dies a gruesome death for helping a beggar. Why is it that the mesirot nefesh of Lot is barely focused on while Avraham’s actions serve as a hallmark of chesed?
There are two ways a person can view mitzvot and aveirot. On a basic level, it can seem to be a point system. Each good deed gets us a check and each bad deed gets an “x.” If you view the world in this way, then your job is to gather as many points as possible. The higher you score the higher the rewards. However, this viewpoint is really missing the point! The Torah is a road map showing us how to elevate ourselves and bring Hashem into this world and into each of us. The true purpose of a mitzvah isn’t to earn a point and get a prize; it is to come closer to the G-dliness that is in each of us.
Lot was no fool. He witnessed the great bracha that Avraham received because of his chesed. It was clear to Lot that acts of kindness were highly valued and rewarded by Hashem. Therefore, when Lot saw an opportunity to do a chesed he grabbed it. Lot’s attitude to helping can best be described by the following story.
During chol hamoed Sukkot a yeshiva bachur on an Egged bus approached an irreligious Jew and asked if he would like to shake a lulav and esrog. The offer was refused. Later someone else made the same offer to this not yet frum Jew and he accepted. The bachur approached the man and asked, “How come you refused my offer but accepted his?” The man responded, “You wanted to have the mitzvah of getting another Jew to shake the lulav. The other person wanted me to have the mitzvah of shaking the lulav. If you want more mitzvot do them yourself, I don’t want to be your lulav.”
Avraham did chesed because he was looking to help others. He worried about them physically and spiritually. In order to give each guest the best possible dish, Avraham slaughtered three cows. He also made sure they washed their feet from avodah zara and that they made a bracha for the food they ate. Contrast this to Lot’s actions with his guests. Lot told his guest not to wash off their feet so that it would appear like they just came. Lot didn’t care whether they got rid of their avodah zara because he didn’t care about them. Similarly a little bit of salt becomes a big deal to give his guests. Avraham saw a world filled with people that needed help and he desired to help them. Lot wanted to give so that he could be rewarded as a baal chesed. We have two acts that seem the same, yet one has its source in selflessness and the other in selfishness.
Understanding the shoresh of Lot’s actions will also help clarify another difficulty. How could Lot offer his own daughters to the people of Sedom? Not only is this forbidden from the Torah, it is also against a father’s nature. The answer is that Lot’s thoughts were based on a reward system like we explained. In his mind giving up his own daughters for strangers was a righteous act. Doing chesed for strangers seems to be more impressive then doing for your own family.
Lot was completely wrong. The Arizal says that the first judgment of v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha will be on how a man treats his wife. Treating those close to you well is actually more important and challenging. If the point of mitzvot is to elevate yourself, then being kind to your family is the main form of chesed. The daily challenge of patience and understanding for your family is even greater than the momentary act of kindness to strangers.
As bnei Avraham the lesson for us is that to be a true giver we need to focus not on our need to give but on the needs of others to receive. We need to not only think about how we treat strangers, but even more importantly, how we treat those close to us. Every day holds endless opportunities to do another person a favor. It could mean helping a total stranger, but it could also mean lending a hand to your parent, child, spouse, sibling, friend, etc.
May we be zoche to fulfill our tafkid of being true gomlei chassadim on the path set out for us by Avraham Avinu.