Person in the Parsha: Vayera

By RABBI TZVI HERSH WEINREB

Every practical person who is about to open a retail store, and everyone in the market for a new home, knows how important it is to find the proper location for the new venture. The retail entrepreneur knows that his new business must be located in a place which is easily accessible to his potential customers. He knows that he cannot be too far from his sources of supply and that he cannot be too close to his competitors.

Similarly, anyone seeking a new home must choose a location which fits his needs and the needs of his family.

Even in today’s world, where so many of our daily interactions are conducted electronically, experts will tell you that a major consideration is always “location, location, location.”

The Jewish tradition has always known about the importance of “location.” Besides considerations of economics and convenience, our tradition emphasizes the importance of choosing a location which is conducive to proper moral and spiritual development. We are taught that it is essential to avoid a shachen ra, a bad neighbor. This is in order to avoid the neighbor who will have a negative influence upon us and upon our children. It is to avoid such negative influences that our Sages admonish us, “Woe to the wicked person, and woe to his neighbor!”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24), we continue to follow the story of Abraham and Sarah. From the first time we are introduced to them, at the very end of Parshat Noach, we learn that the issue of “location, location, location” is crucial for them. They obey the divine command to move to the land of Canaan, but even after their arrival, they periodically “relocate.”

As we follow their journey, we come to understand the reasons for those relocations. We even understand why, at one point, it is necessary for them to abandon Canaan and move to Egypt. There is a famine in the land of Canaan, and for reasons of survival, they are forced to relocate.

In this week’s parsha, we read of another relocation, one with very significant consequences. Abraham and Sarah are living in Hebron—more precisely, in Eilonei Mamre, on the plains of Mamre. They are comfortable there, and they are “doing their thing,” opening their home hospitably to needy wanderers, and praying on behalf of the sinners of Sodom and Gomorrah. But they are clearly aging and are concerned about their childlessness.

Then, at the very beginning of chapter 20, we are surprised to learn that another relocation is in the offing. “Abraham journeyed forth from there to the south country and settled between Kadesh and Shur, and he dwelled in Gerar.” (Genesis 20:1)

“What is this all about?” we wonder. We read of no famine, and there is no divine command instructing Abraham to leave his long-established residence. What prompts this sudden move?

This question has perplexed our commentators throughout the generations. Rashi is bothered by it and suggests two possible motivations for the sudden move. First of all, he suggests that the ruin of Sodom and Gomorrah drastically reduces the number of desert travelers in need of hospitality. Abraham’s raison d’être is to offer hospitality to such travelers, but now that he faces a reduction of his “clientele,” he seeks to find a better location, one where such travelers are more frequently available.

Rashi offers an alternative possible motive, suggesting that Abraham wishes to distance himself from Lot, who had disgraced himself by his incestuous acts.

Ramban is intrigued by the similarities and contrasts between the experience Abraham is about to encounter in his new locale, Gerar, and his prior experience in Egypt. Here, he meets up with Avimelech, King of Gerar, but then he confronts Pharaoh, King of Egypt.

Ramban stresses that whereas Pharaoh and his culture are morally corrupt, this new King, Avimelech, is tam veyashar gam anashav tovim, an innocent and righteous person whose society behaves properly.

Ramban’s praiseworthy “diagnosis” of the culture in which Abraham and Sarah now find themselves seems to me to be the basis for a most interesting explanation of the sudden move which is otherwise so perplexing. I refer to the explanation offered by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.

Rabbi Hirsch notes that at this juncture in their long lives, Abraham and Sarah are patiently awaiting the fulfillment of the Almighty’s promise that they would be blessed with a child. They dismiss their old neighborhood as inadequate for raising the Isaac they wish to raise, and seek to relocate to somewhere more appropriate. They choose, suggests Rabbi Hirsch, to “settle” between Kadesh and Gerar, a sparsely populated region where they would find a fair measure of solitude, but also to occasionally “dwell” in Gerar, a cosmopolitan metropolis, the capital of the King who is “innocent and righteous,” and the center of a society very different from Abraham’s and Sarah’s, but a moral society nonetheless.

Here is how Rabbi Hirsch amplifies his thesis, as translated in the English version of his commentary by Daniel Haberman, and published by Feldheim:

“We now see Abraham, in his waning years, settling in an isolated, uninhabited area near the wilderness of Shur. At the same time, however, he seeks contact with city life and occasionally stays in Gerar, the capital of the Philistine kings.

“We would venture to say that what prompted Abraham and Sarah to change their place of residence was the expectation of the imminent birth of their son. An Isaac should be educated in isolation, far removed from any negative influence.

“On the other hand, complete isolation, which denies the student all contact with people who think differently and whose aims and way of life differ from his own, is a dangerous educational mistake. A young person who has never seen a way of life other than that of his parents, never had an opportunity to compare his parents’ lifestyle with that of others, and never learned to appreciate the moral contrast between the two, will never learn to value, respect, and hold fast to the ways his parents have taught him. He will surely fall victim to outside influences at his first encounter with them, just as one who fears of fresh air and closets himself in his room can be sure of catching cold as soon as he goes outdoors.

“Abraham’s son, the future bearer of Abraham’s heritage, should, from time to time, enter the world that is alien to the spirit of Abraham. There, he can evaluate opposing ideas and strengthen himself to keep to the ways of Abraham in a world that is opposed to them.”

With this approach, Rabbi Hirsch adopts a courageous position regarding Jewish religious education. Characteristically, he avoids the extremes of both isolation from other cultures and excessive immersion in those cultures. Rabbi Hirsch, throughout his long and influential rabbinic career, stressed the need for balance in spiritual and educational matters. He is all for the benefits of an educational environment free from outside influences but encourages the proper degree of exposure to other cultures, which are not irredeemably immoral, but which advocate a value system at odds with our own. Such exposure allows the individual to use the powers of comparison to better understand and better appreciate our Torah and our lifestyle.

In our own time, when the nature of the cultures which surround us are so powerful, diverse, and complex—and so different from our own core values—it would be wise to respond to Rabbi Hirsch’s call for a proper balance. Perhaps it is more challenging nowadays to find that balance, but that does not mean that we should not make the effort to do so.

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