Marc KatzComment

It's Your Problem Too (Parashat Lech Lecha)

Marc KatzComment
It's Your Problem Too (Parashat Lech Lecha)

In our tradition, Abraham is famous for many things. He stands for justice. He is hospitable. He has perfect faith. But along with these litany of famous virtues, Abraham is known for something else: he is our tradition’s model for how we should choose our lodgings when traveling and what it means to be a good guest.

According to our ancient rabbis, humility and travel are intricately connected. If a person grows accustomed to staying in a certain house or inn, he must keep staying there. There are a number of reasons for why this is. First, it doesn't look good to the owner of the lodging if you suddenly abandon him. But perhaps more importantly, it makes you, the traveler, look fickle and hard to please.

Reflecting back on this idea, our rabbis point to Abraham’s loyalty as a model that all travelers should follow. As the story goes, God calls Abraham and tells him to leave his home in the Mesopotamian city of Ur to follow God to the land of Canaan. Abraham agrees and journeys with his family. However, as soon as he arrives, he is faced with a major challenge; there is a severe famine in the land and he must leave his newfound home and travel to Egypt.

Eventually Abraham is able to return, and it is during this journey home that our rabbis uncover Abraham’s dedication to his hosts. The Torah reads:

From Egypt, Abram went up into the Negeb, with his wife and all that he possessed, together with Lot...And he proceeded by stages from the Negeb as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai, the site of the altar that he had built there at first; and there Abram invoked the LORD by name. (Genesis 13:1,3-4)

Looking closely at this account they imagine that Abraham retraced his steps. He stopped in the same places he had on the way to Egypt, pitching his tent on the same land and staying with the same people. If he had a good experience on the way down, why wouldn’t he stay there on his way back? But even if the experience wasn't so good, he still owed his business to the hosts that previously given him hospitality. 

As Rashi explains:

When he returned from Egypt to the land of Canaan he went and lodged in the same inns as he had stayed when he travelled to Egypt. This teaches you good manners: that one should not change his inn (See Arachin 16b)

However, Abraham’s model is not universal. There are times when travellers like Abraham should not return to the same place. What if they are treated badly? What if it is unsafe? What if there is new ownership? Reflecting on what would make someone switch housing during their travels, our Rabbis lay out two interesting possibilities.

According to one opinion, one should not return to the same inn if he or a member of his family is struck by his host. In another opinion, he should leave if he feels that he is not welcome. They use the metaphor of a host “putting a bag on a person’s back” and sending him on his way.

Over the course of time, other great thinkers have weighed in about what they think are grounds for changing their lodging. Perhaps the most fitting answer and one that deals with our world today appeared in the writings of the Eitz Yosef, the 19th century Russian Talmudist Enoch Zundel ben Joseph.

He explains that there is an opinion that if one sees his host mistreating his wife, one must rebuke him and afterwards he can boycott the establishment. As he warns, when we see someone treating another badly we don't always speak up. If it was our own wife we would've raised hell, but since it's happening in someone else's household we remain silent. However, we are part of a tradition that demands that we raise our voice when we see injustice and abuse. The owner of the inn must understand that his actions cannot be tolerated and it is our job to tell him. If it means offending him, giving him a bad reputation, or taking money away from him, then it is worth it. Our priority is to help another in need.

The Eitz Yosef reminds us that we stand in the footsteps of Moses who when he saw two Israelites quarreling, decided to get in the middle of their dispute and say something (Exodus 2:13). He understood that sometimes “staying out of it” is not an option and a private dispute or a third party interaction should be our problem. It is our obligation to get involved.

We live in a world that needs the Eitz Yosef’s teaching more than ever. Too many of us witness horrible acts toward others and say nothing. We stand silent as we hear a woman harassed on the train. Many hear about sexual assault and shut our ears, assuming it is not our place to intervene. Others suspect domestic violence down the street and turn a blind eye.

The Talmud, inspired by Abraham, teaches us that we should be open to others actions around us and put up with their faults, but the Eitz Yosef tells us that there are limits to our tolerance. Our role is to intrude, to butt in, to intervene. If we are really stewards of the just society of which we dream, then there is nothing too personal, too private, top domestic for our attention. A stranger’s problem must become our own.

 For more writings by Rabbi Katz check out his book, The Heart of Loneliness or his blog.