I. Mitzvah Agency
Personal involvement in mitzvah performance, rather than through a representative, is intuitively compelling. If you view the opportunity to fulfill God’s commandments as a privilege and not a burden you will try to do so yourself. If so, why did Avraham, in arranging food for his guests, pick out an animal but give it to Yishmael (the young man) to prepare (Gen. 18:7)?
The simple answer is that he was too old. Rashi offers another explanation that is somewhat more complex. Avraham had Yishmael slaughter and cook the cow because Avraham wanted to educate his son in mitzvos. While Rashi’s plain meaning is clear, I would like to take them in a pilpulistic direction. Within that framework, we can ask which commandments Avraham was trying to teach? Hakhnasas orechim, caring for guests, is only one mitzvah yet Rashi speaks about commandments in the plural. Perhaps Avraham was trying to educate Yishmael, not in a specific mitzvah but in a general attitude to all mitzvos.
II. Honor to a Scholar
The Gemara (Bava Metzi’a 30a) says that when an elder finds a lost object, he does not have to return it if doing so is contrary to his honor. For example, if he sees a lost wallet in a pig pen, he does not have to enter that dirty and disreputable place to pick it up. Anyone for whom retrieving an object is a disgrace need not take it. The general rule is that if you would not pick up your own wallet in such a circumstance, you need not pick up someone else’s. R. Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shi’urim, Kesuvos #266) quotes the Ramban who says that this exemption applies to every interpersonal mitzvah. A scholar is exempt if fulfilling it puts him in a position contrary to his honor.
The Mishnah Berurah (Bi’ur Halakhah 250 sv. ki zehu) uses this concept to explain why the Shulchan Arukh (ad loc., 1) says that even the greatest Torah scholars must prepare their homes for Shabbos because “that is his honor.” You might have thought that a Torah scholar would not have to sweep his floor or chop wood for Shabbos because doing so is not according to his honor. However, in this case, when it is obviously for a mitzvah, it is his honor. Any time, the Mishnah Berurah writes, that it is obvious that what you are doing is for a mitzvah, there is no exemption for a Torah scholar from work beneath his honor. But when it isn’t obviously for a mitzvah, such as when he finds a lost object in a dirty place, he is exempt from the commandment.
III. Forgoing Honor
The Rambam (Moshneh Torah, Hilkhos Gezeilah 11:17) rules that a Torah scholar may–should–return a lost object even when he is exempt. If he follows the path of the good and the just, he will do it even if it beneath his honor. However, the Rosh (Bava Metzi’a ch. 2 no. 21) rules that he is not allowed to set aside his honor because it isn’t his honor at stake but the Torah’s honor. The Shulchan Arukh (Choshen Mishpat 263:1) rules like the Rambam while the Rema rules like the Rosh. However, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (ad loc., 4) adds an intuitive but important qualification: If it isn’t according to your honor because you are a Torah scholar, you may not set aside the exemption and disgrace the Torah (unless, as the Mishnah Berurah points out, it is obvious you are performing a mitzvah). But if it isn’t according to your honor because you are rich or politically important, then you are allowed to be strict and return the lost object because the Torah’s honor is not at stake. With this, we can return to Avraham’s education of Yishmael.
Avraham could not slaughter the animal, which would certainly dirty him and his clothing, because it was not according to his honor. Even though he certainly wanted to do prepare food for his guests, he was not allowed to because, as a Torah scholar, he was required to sustain the Torah’s honor. On the other hand, Yishmael, at the time Avraham’s only heir, was certainly rich but he was not a Torah scholar. Both were exempt from dirtying themselves by slaughtering and cooking the cow for the guests but Yishmael, unlike Avraham, was allowed to forgo his honor.
Avraham, in instructing Yishmael to prepare the cow, was teaching him to be unsatisfied with the bare minimum of performance. He was instructing him to want to do what is good and just. Avraham had Yishmael do these acts to teach him that this is the proper attitude to mitzvos–go beyond what is required. Do as much as you can, even if you are not obligated. This was how Avraham educated Yishmael in mitzvos.
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