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Suddenly Avraham looks up and notices three men coming nearer. Into action he springs. Running to them and then bowing he exclaims: "Please don't pass on from your servant. Let a little water be brought...and you'll rest under the tree. I'll bring a morsel of bread and you'll satisfy your appetite. Then you'll continue on your way." (Bereishis 18:14-15)
The Torah describes the alacrity which the aged suffering patriarch displays in his efforts on behalf of his guests. He excitedly runs into his wife Sarah. "Quickly knead bread and make cakes!" Then again he runs to his herd, chooses a good tender calf for his guests to eat, and hurries the lad to prepare it.
Out of all the things that Avraham offered to do for his guests, why did he offer only "a little water"? Everything else was served with great abundance, but why of all things is the water limited? Rabbi Yisroel Salanter (19th century) by his example gives us the answer.
Rabbi Yisroel was once travelling with a Talmid of his. It was time for afternoon prayers, and so the two entered a modest synagogue to pray. As is customary, they both washed their hands for prayers. First, the talmid washed with a liberal amount of water from a basin which was filled for this purpose, then Rabbi Yisroel followed suit, however, using a minimal amount of water. "Aren't you accustomed to wash with a liberal amount Reb Yisroel?" "Yes, in fact, I am. But this is a small synagogue with a small group who comes here on a daily basis. I'm concerned that the caretaker only fills the basin with enough water for those who usually come here to pray. If I wash liberally I may leave a noticeable deficiency in the basin. If the president of the synagogue feels the caretaker is not carrying out his responsibilities correctly, it can cost him his job and thus his livelihood."
On another occasion Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was invited by a well to do student of his for the Shabbos night meal. "I don't except any invitations without first knowing about the house I'm staying in," replied the rabbi. The student began to explain how he hired the widow of a learned man who cooks for him who is very meticulous in her standards of keeping kosher, and which butcher he buys from. He explained how he arranges the Friday night meal with song and Torah discussion, and how his feast always ends at a very late hour. "I'll accept your invitation on the condition that you end two hours earlier," answered Rabbi Yisroel.
Indeed, the entire meal extended for less than one hour, and before the participants recited grace after meals the host requested of his Rebbe to explain what was wrong with his way of conducting himself, Rabbi Yisroel did not answer, but rather summoned the widow who cooked the elaborate meal and said to her: "Please excuse me for putting you under pressure to rush the meal so much on my behalf." Just the opposite, I wish you would come every week," said the woman. "I work hard all day Friday preparing, and I'm usually falling off my feet by the late hour that we usually finish. Because of you we finished earlier, and now I can go home and rest."
Rabbi Yisroel turned to his student and said "this woman's answer is the answer to the question you asked me earlier. Indeed, your Friday night customs are extremely admirable, but not if they are observed at the expense of others."
When it comes to the work of having guests which Avraham and Sarah committed themselves to, and which they personally undertook, the sky is the limit. However, in the case of the water, which someone else (yishmael) was bringing, Avraham did not offer that in abundance at the expense of those who were carrying it. This is the sensitivity which Avraham conducted himself with even when he was personally caught up in performing acts of kindness for his guests.