Some things we should optimally do ourselves.
We were once over at a friend’s house with our teacher. Our friend offered our teacher a cup of tea. When our teacher responded in the affirmative, our friend turned to his wife and asked her to make him a cup of tea. It was our friend’s wife’s pleasure to do so but our teacher gave our friend a gentle reproach. “I see you are not among those whose goal in life is personal growth; when they offer someone a kindness, they do it themselves!”
This incidence made a big impact on my husband and me. And even though we are not always conscientious enough to behave in the more appropriate fashion, we always notice afterwards and all we need to do is begin the sentence “I see you are not among those whose goal in life in personal growth…” It’s an automatic reality check.
But it wasn’t an insight unique to our teacher. He learned it in the Torah. After Abraham runs to greet the three strangers, he asks his wife, Sarah, to knead the flour and make cakes and his son, Yishmael, to prepare the calf that Abraham brought to him. It’s not that Abraham does nothing; he serves the men, he washes their feet, he’s very involved. But he does offer the guests particular kindnesses that he then enlists the help of others to fulfill. And for this there are consequences. Those actions that Abraham does himself are rewarded directly from the Almighty; those where he enlists others, the Almighty does the same and rewards him through a messenger, an angel.
It’s a fine line. We want to enlist others – we need their help, it’s for their good, we want to train our children – but we just need to make sure that we are doing our share, that we aren’t taking advantage or forcing them or doing our chesed, our acts of kindness at their expense.
I remember when my girls were in high school and the school had a chesed program. My daughters signed up to help overwhelmed mothers after school – with homework, with housework, you name it. The problem (okay, the challenge!) was that the families rarely lived in walking distance and my girls couldn’t yet drive. You can start to see where I’m heading… Many afternoons, right around dinner and homework time, I found myself driving my girls around to fulfill their chesed commitment. Not only did they leave behind their own overwhelmed mother (!) but I felt that the school shouldn’t obligate them to do chesed at my expense, acts of kindness that couldn’t be done without my involvement.
Maybe I would have chosen to do it anyway. Maybe I would have thought that it was valuable enough for my children that it was worth the extra effort for me (and maybe not!) but I felt strongly that it should be my choice and resentful at having been forced into it.
On the other hand, when we have guests, I have for years had a rotation for setting the table and certainly an unspoken expectation about help serving. I like to think that my children are doing it because they want to, because it’s a reflection of their own developed and internalized kindness, but it’s possible they think I am being hospitable at their expense. Life is complicated.
I don’t have all the answers but I am raising the questions. And I think that what’s required here is consciousness and thought (like with everything else). When you raise a large family, there is often an assumption that the older ones help raise the younger, thereby easing the burden on the mother. I never subscribed to that viewpoint because I felt that my children didn’t choose to have more siblings; I did so it was my responsibility not theirs. (Again, if you poll them you may get a different story – so please don’t!)
It’s not that Abraham –or my friend – were wrong per se. It just wasn’t the full credit behavior. There are certainly times when it’s appropriate to solicit the help of others (when planning large fund-raisers or other events) but when personal kindness is offered, then the one who offers it should do the kindness.
Sometimes (okay not that often) we are invited out for a Shabbos meal. I offer to bring dessert. If one of my daughters is in the mood of baking (yes that happens around here) and makes dessert for our friends, I don’t think this principle has been violated. But what if I turn around and then ask her to bake? Once again, not the full credit response.
It’s a judgment call; it can be subtle. But like all Torah ideas, more food (no pun intended) for thought and a reminder to always be alert and conscious.