“Choosing The Right Neighbors”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Vayeira, we learn that after 23 years of residing in the area of Elonei Mamrei near Hebron Abraham departs and moves south to Gerar. Scripture records the move as follows (Genesis 20:1): “Va’yee’sa mee’shahm Avraham ar’tzah ha’negev, va’yay’shev bayn Ka’daysh oo’vayn Shur, va’yah’gahr b’Gerar,” Abraham journeyed from there [Elonei Mamrei] toward the south country, and settled between Kadesh and Shur, and sojourned in Gerar.

Since the Torah does not provide a reason, the various commentators search for the cause of Abraham’s move. Rashi, citing the Midrash, suggests that after the destruction of Sodom and Gemorah there were few wayfarers in the area. Abraham, being deeply committed to welcoming guests, moved to a place where there would be more travelers. The Sforno notes that Abraham would have more opportunities to spread his monotheistic faith in this new, more densely populated area.

Other commentators suggest that Abraham felt that it was preferable for him to live in the desert [the Negev] than to live anywhere near the corrupt society of Sodom.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch presumes that Abraham, having been informed that he would soon father a child, realized that he needed to be in a proper, more nurturing environment. He therefore moved to a place where there would be more favorable influences.

Our rabbis place great emphasis on the importance of choosing a proper environment when establishing a home. Perhaps the most famous statement concerning this issue is found in the Midrash Tanchuma that is cited by Rashi on Numbers 16:1. Rashi seeks to understand why Datan, Aviram, On ben Pelet and the 250 men from the tribe of Reuben were caught up in the rebellion of Korach and his family. To this the rabbis of the Midrash respond: “Oy la’rasha, v’oy lish’cheno,” Woe to the evil one, woe to his neighbor! Since the tribe of Reuben dwelt in the southern part of the camp of Israel in close proximity to the family of Korach, the Reubenites were drawn into their neighbor’s rebellion.

Elie Wiesel tells a story of the prophet who came to Sodom to call the people to repent. Because of the inhabitants’ well-known reputation for wanton wickedness, no prophet had ever had the temerity to venture into Sodom. At first, the Sodomites were amused by the fact that someone would dare enter their city, but after a while, the amusement wore off and they began to shower the prophet with epithets and pelt him with garbage. However, the prophet persisted.

One day, a little boy approached the prophet and asked, “Mr. Prophet, why of all the places on earth did you choose to come to Sodom?” The prophet responded meekly, “When I first came to Sodom, I truly hoped that my words would affect the people and change Sodom.” “But,” said the little boy, “You see that your words have had no effect on the people of Sodom, and instead you have become an object of derision and hate. Why do you continue to prophesy now?” The prophet answered, “When I first came to Sodom, I hoped that I would change the people of Sodom. Now I continue to prophesy in the hope that they will not change me!”

The issue that Abraham faced in choosing a dwelling place in the ancient New East is similar to the issue that many of us face today.

How should we, committed Jews, choose our place of residence? Where should we dwell? It’s nigh impossible to be a tzaddik in Sodom. Surely, there is no more important decision that we can make in our lives than choosing the environment in which we reside and the community in which to raise our children. The environment that we choose must not only be a moral and ethical environment, but also an environment that will be supportive of our own Jewish growth.

When we look for a home, our first priority must not be whether it’s split-level or ranch style, co-op, condo or rental. Our first priority must be whether it will be an environment where we can grow religiously. We must make certain that the local synagogue is one in which we can pray with passion and fervor, led by a rabbi who inspires. We must make certain that the schools are appropriate for our children and that we will be part of a community of like-minded people who are serious about Jewish life and Jewish growth.

Our rabbis frequently teach (Ketubot 110a) that all Jews should preferably dwell in the land of Israel. In fact, some rabbis even suggest that Jews who reside outside of Israel are likened to idol worshipers (Ketubot 110b). Nevertheless, the rabbis rule that those who feel that their Torah study and Jewish lifestyle will be enhanced by living outside of Israel may do so. In Judaism, there is no such thing as “one-size-fits-all.” There are many factors that must be seriously taken into consideration when making this choice, not only objective considerations, but subjective ones as well. The community in which we choose to live has to speak to us, nurture us and be a proper fit for us.

May you be blessed.