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The Welfare of Others

This week’s Torah portion, Vayera, opens with Hashem coming to visit Avraham. While there was no prophetic communication between God and Avraham during this visit, we learn an important concept from this one verse. Avraham was recuperating from his circumcision. Hashem, so to speak, was performing the mitzvah of ביקור חולים, visiting the sick. Avraham was in need and God came to buoy his spirits.

Rabbi Soloveitchik makes an astute observation. As mentioned above, there was no message, no command, no law or promise given to Avraham during this encounter with God. The word ויאמר, “and he said” is not found in this verse. God simply came to see him, to be with him. The Rav explains that, “If two individuals are close friends, sharing a sense of intimacy and companionship, one need not have a message to deliver in order to walk into the other’s home. The highest form of friendship does not require words.” Just being there for the other person is all that needs to be communicated.

In truth there is no specific mitzvah in the Torah to “visit the sick.” “Visiting the sick” is a rabbinic formulation of a mitzvah that does exist in the Torah. That mitzvah is ואהבת לרעך כמוך, “love your neighbor as yourself.” The rabbinic formulation of this Torah mitzvah includes “inviting quests for a meal” and “comforting mourners.” It also takes form in the requirement and obligation for a prospective bride and groom to see each other first before any formal arrangement is made. It is an absolute prohibition to formalize any marriage before she sees him and says, “I agree to marry him,” and he sees her and likewise says, “I agree to marry her.” The Talmud Kiddushin explains, “Lest she see some unsightly thing in him and/or he sees some unsightly thing in her.”

What is the backdrop of the mitzvah, “to love your neighbor as yourself?” Is that even possible? Perhaps there are a handful of people that one could say they feel this way about. Perhaps the expression is true of certain family members, children or a spouse. Perhaps there is a dear friend to whom this mitzvah applies. Yet the mitzvah “to love your neighbor as yourself,” applies to everyone, not just to those to whom we may have a certain psychological attachment or identification.

How is the true fulfillment of this command possible? The performance of this mitzvah is only possible if one truly embraces the Torah’s statement about mankind made in the very first chapter of Bereishit. “And God created man in His image; in the image of God, He created him; male and female He created them.” Whether considering yourself or looking at another person, all that really should be seen is “the image of God” which every human being is endowed with from birth.

It is the “image of God” in the other person that should register in our mind. Were that the case, we would spontaneously respond to the needs of the other person just as we do for ourselves. We would never intentionally hurt another’s feelings. We would try to ease another’s pain and suffering. We would support a person when their spirits are down. We would rejoice in another’s simcha as if it were our own.

So too, we would seek to build the person up, not just emotionally, but intellectually as well. If we truly love our fellow man, we would look for ways to impart knowledge to another. We would never withhold knowledge. That privation would be the cruelest treatment possible between human beings. Knowledge improves and transforms a person. Teaching, then, not only falls under the mitzvah of “learning Torah,” but under the mitzvah of “love your neighbor as yourself” as well. Just as I seek out and desire knowledge as the most beneficial possession to me, so too I must recognize that acquiring knowledge is most beneficial to every person. Therefore, purposely withholding knowledge from someone would constitute a serious violation of “to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Avraham and Sarah are the paradigms par excellence for the mitzvah “to love your neighbor as yourself.” Not only were they known for their הכנסת אורחים, “welcoming strangers into their home” but “ואת הנפש אשר עשו בחרן”, “for the souls that they made in Charan.” When Avraham and Sarah set out on their journey “to the land that I will show you,” Avraham and Sarah did not abandon them. These were their students and followers. They had been transformed by Avraham and Sarah sharing ideas of reality they had discovered. Concern for their future welfare was no less important to them than their personal concern.

The mitzvah “to love your neighbor as yourself” is only possible when one truly embraces the idea that all mankind is created “in the image of God.” This attitude was the underlying motivation that accounts for all the care, concern, and kindness bestowed on others by Avraham and Sarah.

May their way of life be a constant model and inspiration to how we conduct all of our interpersonal relationships.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan