By Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb
The Jewish tradition has always known about the importance of “location” – emphasizing the importance of choosing a location that 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 such negative influences that our Sages admonish us, “Woe to the wicked person, and woe to his neighbor!”
In this week’s Torah portion, 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.”
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, 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 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 prompts this sudden move? We read of no famine, and there is no divine command instructing Abraham to leave his long-established residence. Rashi suggests two possible motivations for the sudden move. First, 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 also suggests 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 is the basis for a most interesting explanation of the sudden move. I refer to the explanation offered by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Here is Rabbi Hirsch’s thesis, as translated into English by Daniel Haberman:
“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. He avoids the extremes of both isolation from other cultures and excessive immersion in those cultures. Rabbi Hirsch 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.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.