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Rashi's Mussar: My Neighbor Is My Priority

Published on Thursday November 7th, 2019

Parshat Lech Lecha introduces a central figure in the Torah, our first Patriarch Avraham, whose exceptional personality is the cornerstone for all past, present and future generations of Jews. Avraham's model is an example which deserves being carefully pondered upon. Indeed, our rabbis teach us that every Jew should strive to emulate the deeds and traits of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs in his/her daily actions and behavior.

Parshat Lech Lecha refers to Avraham Avinu's movements in the land of Canaan. The text recounts that he was building a tent to serve as his residence, and Rashi comments (chapter 12, v. 8): "His tent": The word is written in feminine gender (aholo: "his tent for her"). He began by setting up his wife's tent, and then he set his own (Bereshit Rabbah 39:15). "

This is a primordial lesson that deserves some thought. Rashi tells us that Avraham started by setting up Sarah's tent before setting his own. This should not be interpreted as a simple act of gallantry, but as a much subtler approach to human relations.

Firstly, giving others priority is a gesture of respect, honor and love. Avraham manifests his love for his contemporaries under all circumstances, and firstly and foremostly, for his beloved wife. These considerations are remarkable because they transpire in the intimacy of the home, away from the eyes of outside witnesses who could credit and praise Avraham for his conduct.

For Avraham Avinu, Chesed was not a means to gain social acknowledgement. It was a natural way of life that he exercised daily with his closest family members, as well as with total strangers. This point deserves to be emphasized because often men are on their best behavior and exercise good Middot around strangers, for whom they exude remarkable patience and great generosity. But as soon as they cross the threshold of their home, they show their true colors as they feel it is no longer necessary to make a good impression. Therefore, a man's quintessential character traits are best assessed by the attitude he professes behind closed doors, in the intimacy of his home. At that moment, when masks are off and socially accepted codes are no longer required, one can truly appreciate the level of a man's Middot.

But there is more to say about Avraham's exemplary behavior. Indeed, confronted to the need of setting up a tent, a woman often feels helpless because she lacks the physical strength to do so. So, she is left feeling vulnerable and dependent on her husband. These feelings are particularly unpleasant, if not humiliating, for the person who experiences them. Indeed, depending on the good will of a neighbor, or even of a husband, is unpleasant, and there is a strong desire to resolve this situation as soon as possible. Therefore, Avraham tackles the responsibility of setting up his wife's tent first, to relieve her of this psychological burden, and to avoid making her feel dependent on him. The idea that his wife may feel vulnerable, dependent and helpless is unbearable to him. Avraham can empathize in his heart and soul to the suffering and helplessness of his fellow men and imperatively responds to relieve them.

As Avraham serves others, he brings relief to himself. We may never find a better example of the verse: "Love thy neighbor as thyself." This state of mind should animate every single one of us when we witness the suffering endured by our brothers and sisters, whether they are embroiled in family drama, financial difficulties or spiritual dilemmas. Their vulnerability and precariousness are sometimes extreme; and we should behave like Avraham vis-à-vis their helplessness. Nurturing their needs before fulfilling our own should be our first priority, to the point of being unable to eat or go about our business, before ensuring our brothers and sisters have food on the table.

We should not only feel our neighbors' needs as a compelling duty to assist them in every way possible; we should also show compassion in our hearts for their vulnerability and run to reassure them because they depend on us. Doubtlessly, someone who follows this way will merit that God respond to him in kind and answer his needs speedily.  

In these troubled times, our rabbis teach that it is imperative to multiply acts of Chesed to hasten the redemption of the Jewish people and to limit our tribulations. Indeed, since time immemorial, our Sages have warned us that the basis of all wisdom upon which the Torah rests are acts of generosity, it is the Torah's ABC, or rather its "Alef Beit". Indeed, the treatise of Shabbat (104a) teaches that the beginning of the Hebrew alphabet may be interpreted hence: "Alef, Beit, Gimel, Dalet" as firstly (Aleph), learn wisdom (Bina) and secondly, support the poor (Gomel Dalim); or, "the beginning of wisdom is to support the poor".

To conclude, let's reminisce the wise words of the famous Rabbi Israel Salanter: "the material needs of my neighbor constitute my spiritual needs."

Jérome TOUBOUL - © Torah-Box Account

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