A common response to intense or chronic pain is to decrease activity and focus on oneself. Research indicates, though, that people in pain who focus on something beyond themselves (by volunteering, for example) reap benefits such as a decrease in pain and depression.
The same is true when it comes to aging. Older people generally tend to focus on the needs of the self and decrease their activity, but data suggest that volunteering as an older adult is associated with improved well-being and lower mortality rates and may even decrease the general functional decline that comes with aging.
In one fascinating study, researchers measured how quickly older adults walked and climbed stairs – both before and after a year’s worth of volunteering – and found that those who volunteered had improved walking and stair climbing speeds by the year’s end.
When describing Avraham welcoming the angels disguised as nomads, the Torah provides a detailed account of how Avraham interacted with them in performing the mitzvah of hachnassat orchim. In fact, the Radak suggests that the primary purpose of the entire story is to provide us with a paradigm for how to perform acts of kindness.
Even a cursory reading of the pesukim leaves the reader in awe of the speed Avraham exhibited in performing the mitzvah. For every task, Avraham runs. The preparations are done with zest and vitality. His actions are even more impressive, as the Ramban points out, since he was old, weak, and in pain from his recent brit mila – and because he had a household full of servants ready to assist. Avraham teaches us the importance of doing this mitzvah with alacrity and by oneself.
Delving deeper into the text, we can glean additional lessons. To perform acts of chesed properly, we need a degree of social intelligence. By being aware of the probable mindset of others, we can behave in a way that is more effective.
The Alshich suggests that there are several reasons guests may feel uncomfortable accepting an invitation. Primarily, they don’t want to be an imposition on their hosts (making them spend money or time and energy to tend to their needs and clean up afterwards). In addition, the guests may be in a rush and don’t want to get caught up in a long layover at someone’s home.
Avraham uses strategic language in speaking to his guests to allay these fears. He tells them that he has people who can help, so it won’t be such a burden, and that they can stay under his tree so they don’t have to worry about disturbing his privacy at home. He also tells them that he will just bring out a little water and a slice of bread so that they don’t feel bad (although he then brings out an entire meal so they can be satiated). Finally, he moves quickly in case they are in a rush; he doesn’t want them to feel uncomfortable if they need to leave.
On a midrashic level, Rabbi Eliezer Ashkenazi suggests – based on Chazal‘s statement that that one of the angels came on a mission to heal Avraham – that Avraham was healed as a direct consequence of the chesed he performed. When the angels acquiesced to his request to stay, his pain decreased, and his speed, alacrity and vitality increased. After doing an act of kindness, Avraham – old, weak, and in pain – was healed.
May we all learn from Avraham, the paradigm of chesed, and personally commit to passionately perform acts of kindness, with nuanced social awareness and sensitivity, and, by so doing, live a life of health, happiness, and vitality.