Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin in his introductory commentary to the book of Bereshith remarks that the outstanding quality of the heroes and heroines of that holy book, our fathers, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, and our mothers, Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah was that they were straight, good, nice people.
In reading the sections of the Torah describing them one is struck by how the Torah concentrates on the strains of their personal behavior with others and how very little attention is paid, if any at all, to their theology, philosophy and piety. The rabbis of Midrash and Talmud emphasized this by stating that we see that our father Avraham interrupts a conversation with God, so to speak, in order to welcome and tend to the needs of his three guests whom he believes at that moment to be human itinerant wayfarers.
We learn that welcoming strangers and helping others takes precedence over the spiritual experience of communicating with the Almighty. The rabbis taught us that somehow our forefathers were able to observe the Torah even before it was given to their descendants through Moshe at Mount Sinai.
Since Rabbi Akiva taught that love and care for others is the great and primary rule of the Torah, we can literally understand and appreciate the statement that the great people of Bereshith observed the Torah even before it was given. Their behavior and sensitivity towards others, even towards foes and sinners, was exemplary. These great people taught us that how one treats others is the measure of a person and in a broader sense, of an entire society as well.
We can see how far this concept goes when considering how important public opinion mattered to our great ancestors. When the Lord commanded Avraham to circumcise himself, Avraham was troubled by that commandment for he feared, in the words of Midrash, “that guests would no longer frequent my home.”
Avraham takes counsel with his three friends and fellow monotheists, Aneir, Eshkol and Mamrei to hear their reaction to this commandment. It is hard to imagine why someone who is commanded explicitly by God to do something should feel impelled to run it by his friends to gain their opinion as well.
But Avraham is always aware that his actions can either enhance or imperil his greater mission of bringing God into the human equation of behavior and society. Thus he is bold enough to remind God, so to speak, of public opinion – “How will it look if the Judge of all of the earth shall somehow appear not to have acted justly?!”
And the Lord agrees to Avraham’s argument. Yaakov tells Shimon and Levi that their actions against Shechem and his city left a repulsive odor regarding Yaakov and his family with the other inhabitants of the land. Shimon and Levi defend their actions by stating that they are not prepared to allow their sister to be treated as a harlot. But on his deathbed Yaakov reprimands them again. He held himself and his family to a higher standard of public probity.
Our current educational systems, both secular and religious, do not emphasize niceness, good behavior, care for others in their teaching curriculums. Rather, they tolerate bullying, violence and selfishness as long as the required educational material is covered.
The great Chasidic master was told that one of his disciples had “gone through” the entire Talmud. The holy master responded “But how much of the Talmud has ‘gone through’ my disciple?” We live in a very aggressive society. Road rage and road death are all too common here. Being nice is viewed by many here as being a personality defect – a sign of weakness and subservience.
But the clear message of our ancestors is that we are always held accountable when we are not nice. Ramban boldly criticizes Sarah and Avraham for their treatment of Hagar and Yishmael. It would be completely unnecessary for me to point out the consequences of that behavior to the Jewish people over the centuries until our very day.
Yaakov, in fooling his father Yitzchak, will be repaid by his own children fooling him with the blood soaked shirt of Yosef. There is no escaping the consequences of one’s behavior. And we are always held to the standards of our ancestors – to be nice, decent, sensitive and caring people. Educating ourselves and our generations to realize and subscribe to that goal is the moral imperative of our time.