To give more than is asked

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Translation by Yehoshua Siskin

Someone once approached his town rabbi on Passover eve and asked if it was permissible to drink four cups of milk instead of four cups of wine at the Seder. The rabbi answered no, and then proceeded to give the one who asked a very large amount of tzedakah. The rabbi’s wife asked him why he did this since four cups of wine did not cost so much, and he answered: I gave him money for the entire Seder meal. From his question I understood that he did not have any of the necessities for a proper Seder since he would not be drinking milk at a meal unless there was not enough money for meat.

Rav Shlomo Wolbe was accustomed to tell this story while discussing this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah: when we show kindness, we cannot be stingy. We cannot be robots of kindness and give only what is asked of us. We need to go above and beyond, with sensitivity, and check what lies behind a simple request for help. In the parasha, Rivka meets Eliezer. He asks only for a drink, but she brings water for his camels too, in generous abundance. He asks to stay one night, but she offers him a longer stay in her family’s home.

These are days that find many of us in crisis, and it is not always pleasant to uncover what someone really needs. If someone turns to us with an apparently minor request for help, we tend to do what’s asked in order to just “chalk up another mitzvah”. We need instead to consider what the person opposite us really needs, and how it would be possible to give much more than what we are asked. This quality, this special brand of kindness, is what transforms Rivka into our Mother Rivka.

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