In this week’s Torah reading, Abraham was visited by three angels disguised as humans. Assuming them to be ordinary guests, Abraham ran to prepare a lavish meal for them. In the midst of the Torah describing his hospitality, the Torah mentions (18:4) that he gave water to the guests. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 86b) ascertains from the language used in the verse that Abraham had sent a messenger to give the water to his guests. Our Sages tell us (ibid) that just as Abraham had neglected to serve the water to the guests himself, and instead did so through a messenger, so too God gave water to his descendants, the Jews, indirectly and through a messenger, when he sent Moses to provide the Jews with water in the desert. Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky asks the following question on this passage: We see from the fact that the Talmud makes a point of this consequence that ideally Abraham should have served the water to the guests himself, rather than assigning it to someone else. Yet, Rashi explains, that the messenger who was sent to get the water was none other than Ishmael, Abraham’s son, and that the purpose of doing so was for the sake of teaching his son to welcome guests properly. Since Abraham’s intentions in caring for his guests via an agent was for the constructive purpose of training his son to care for others, why then is there any criticism to be attributed to this action?
Rabbi Kamenetsky explains this passage with the following insight: The best way to educate is by example. While Abraham was aiming to teach his son, Ishmael, good character, he should have been the one to care for the guests himself and serve as a model for Ishmael in how to welcome guests appropriately. When it comes to training our youth to follow the ways of God, the most effective method is by modeling to them through our own character.
A number of years ago, I went with a group of people to meet the Rosh Yeshivah (Dean) of the Philadelphia Yeshivah (school for Talmud study) – Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetsky – the son of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky. We gathered around him in a room, and after hearing words of wisdom from the Rosh Yeshivah, we had the opportunity to ask him questions on any topic. After gathering up some courage, I posed the following question to the Rosh Yeshivah in front of the group: “As a parent, what should be the primary point to focus on in educating a child to grow up with good character?” As you may have guessed, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, and his answer was: “The main thing you should focus on is your own self-improvement. This is the most profound way to influence your child to have good character.”
This concept is not limited to parents of young children or those who are in the field of education. In the morning prayers, every day before we recite the Shema, we ask of the Almighty to grant us wisdom to learn, to teach, and to practice the laws of the Torah. Why did our sages include a request to grant us wisdom to teach in a prayer that is meant to be said by all? Seemingly, such a request would not be applicable to those who are not actively involved in education. Says Rabbi Moshe Feinstein: Every single Jew is by definition involved in education. We are supposed to constantly be a model in the way we act, for all who see us. Each and every one of us serves as an example as to the proper way one should conduct himself, by the means of his own actions.
With this in mind, we are introduced to a whole new level of responsibility for our actions. No matter in which capacity we serve, we are charged with being role models for those surrounding us. The decisions we make in life and the way we conduct ourselves will inevitably influence others. We must always have in mind to see to it that we serve as the proper model in displaying fine character traits as we follow the ways of God. We should not underestimate the influence that our example has upon others; especially our youth.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber