The Jewish Ideal - Insulation Not Isolation
By: Rabbi Barak Bar-Chaim
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, arguably the greatest 19th century German scholar, comments on the juxtaposition of the command of circumcision and Abraham’s desperate post-operative attempt to find guests. He explains that Abraham feared that the unique covenant of his descendants with God would isolate him from the rest of humanity. He was determined to continue his connection and influence on all humanity.
When one begins to think about it, it is astounding. Whilst in communication with God, Abraham interrupts his conversation with God to take care of wayfarers. From here our sages state: “Hospitality is greater than receiving the divine presence.” Even more astounding is to note that the guests he was expecting were idolaters. To show brotherly concern and reach out to unknown idolaters, Abraham interrupts his conversation with the King of Kings!
It seems that Abraham understood that the unique covenant shared by him and his descendants was not intended to isolate him from the rest of humanity. Yes, his own family had a unique destiny, separate commandments, and a special covenant with God. He understood that he was obligated to continue this identity through educating the next generation, as God himself states “…I know he will command his children after him to keep the way of God etc.” Nonetheless, Abraham was determined to foster in his descendants a general benevolence, universal charity, and the goal to be the most moral mortals.
In other words, Abraham’s family must maintain its separate identity while maintaining a benevolent connection towards all humanity. Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, explains this idea using Abraham’s own words. Seeking to purchase a burial place from his neighbors for his dear wife Sarah, Abraham states: “I am an alien and a resident amongst you.” The terms “alien” and “resident” are, of course, contradictory by their very definition. Abraham was explaining to them that he and his descendants are multifaceted. On the one hand, they have a separate mission, role, and destiny – they are aliens. Yet, on the other hand, they are residents together with the rest of mankind – with a moral obligation to be charitable, kind, and deeply care about all humanity.
Our challenge as Jews is to remain true to our unique, precious tradition. This is the Jew’s insulation. However, we are never to become isolationists. On the contrary, Abraham teaches that we are to be “residents” as well as “aliens”. We are to concern ourselves with Tikkun Olam, making our world a better place for all humanity.