Politicians are big talkers, making many grandiose promises often with neither the intent nor the ability to fulfill them. Though politicians are the most egregious examples of “big talkers,” they are surely not the only ones. Athletes speak about the victories they will achieve or the records they will break. Students project the grades they are sure they will earn. Yet is rare when that “big talk” turns into reality. Two thousand years ago one of the great sages of Judaism, Shammai, reflected on this sad truth and recommended: “Say little, do much” (Pirke Avot 1:10).
One of the earliest examples of acting on this advice is Abraham. Three wayfarers arrive at his tent. He rushes to welcome them and offers them water and shade. Since their journey would have been long and difficult, Abraham then offers them some food: “Let me fetch a morsel of bread that you may refresh yourselves and then go on” (Genesis 18:5). Abraham was a champion of hospitality to strangers. Yet a careful reading of the text reveals some additional insight. What Abraham implies is that he already has some bread at hand that he can retrieve for them – and it may not be much: just a morsel. Yet immediately after accepting Abraham’s offer, the latter rushes off to instruct Sarah to knead and bake three cakes of fine flour! What Abraham said he was going to do was retrieve a small portion of bread he had of unknown quality. What he actually did is provide them (through Sarah’s skill) three freshly baked cakes made of fine flour. His action far exceeded his stated intention.
Abraham’s conduct is consistently self-deprecating. He understates what he delivers and he minimizes his standing. When he takes up the brief for defending the presumed innocents who live in Sodom from destruction by God, Abraham declares himself to be merely “dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27), that is, of no significance. Of course, the opposite was the case. The prophet describes Abraham as “God’s friend” (Isaiah 41:8).
As much as the Torah includes laws by which Jews are commanded to live, its also includes the proper standards of behavior to which we should aspire.