Using the Good for Good
The Torah portion begins with the story of Abraham's incredible kindness with the three angels. Abraham goes to great lengths to provide all their needs despite his weak state due to his circumcision three days earlier. This is immediately followed by an account of the angel's descent into Sodom and its subsequent destruction.
Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky points out a very interesting factor in the juxtaposition of these two incidents; both have a great emphasis on hosting guests.(1) The story of Abraham is the classic demonstration of the attitude a person should have towards hachnasat orchim - the optimum way of welcoming and providing for guests. We see how Abraham ignores his own ill health and spares no effort in making his guests feel completely welcome. Immediately following this, the Torah takes us to the city of Sodom and demonstrates their complete antipathy for the very same mitzvah of hachnasat orchim. We see how Lot's life is threatened by the people of Sodom because he dare provide food and shelter for visiting strangers. What is the significance of the Torah's emphasis of the stark contrast between Abraham and the people of Sodom?
Rabbi Kamenetsky suggests an answer based on another aspect of the Sodom story. God tells Abraham about his plans to destroy Sodom because of their complete disregard for their fellow man. Abraham reacts with unlimited concern for these evil people and speaks to God in such a forceful tone that he must first request that God not be angry with him for speaking with such frankness. Rabbi Kamenetsky explains that the Torah is showing us a less well-known aspect of Abraham's incredible level of care for his fellow man. He writes that normally when a person excels in one area or character trait, he is particularly strict with regards to other people's behavior in that same area. Consequently, he tends to judge them very harshly for their perceived failings in that area. The Torah juxtaposes its account of Abraham's greatness in hachnasat orchim with Sodom's abject standing in the very same area, and then shows how, nonetheless, Abraham pleaded that God treat Sodom with mercy. This shows that Abraham did not fall subject to the inclination to be stricter when judging others in an area of one's own strengths. Despite the great gulf in his kindness and that of Sodom, he showed great concern for their wellbeing.
We see from this idea that it is not easy to look favorably on a person's weakness in one's own area of strength. Why this is such a difficult undertaking? When a person excels in one type of character trait he will find it very hard to understand how other people can be less careful in the same field. For example, if a person is particularly punctual he finds it very hard to comprehend how people can consistently come late. It is very clear to him that being late shows lack of consideration for other people's time. His test is to try to recognize that everybody has different strengths and that there may well be areas in which he is far weaker than others. Moreover, he should remember the Mishna in Ethics of the Fathers that tells us: "Do not to judge your fellow until you stand in his place." This teaches us that each person's character traits are based on his unique life circumstances and that we can never accurately judge other people because we do not know how we would behave if we were in their situation.
By internalizing this teaching a person can come to a recognition that each person has their own set of strengths and weaknesses based on numerous factors. Therefore it is wrong to become frustrated with others' weaknesses in his own areas of strength.
There are a number of ways in which a person can impose his own standards on others in a negative way. For example, a person may be very neat and tidy; this is obviously a very good trait and enables a person to live in an organized fashion. However, it is likely that at some point in his life this tidy person will be in situation where he shares accommodation with other people, such as a spouse, children, or a roommate. It is often the case that these other people do not strive for or attain the same level of cleanliness in the home. In such a scenario, the tidy person may become frustrated with them and demand that they clean the house according to his own high standards, imposing his way of doing things in an unfair manner. Rather, an excessively orderly person should accept that other people cannot keep the home clean to the same extent. And if the organized person finds he cannot function properly in such a situation then he should take it upon himself to maintain the cleanliness of the home to his high standards.
There is much discussion about the great kindness of Abraham. Rabbi Kamenetsky teaches us another aspect of his excellence in interpersonal relationships - that he did not impose his own high standards on other people and did not treat them in a strict way.
1. Emes L'Yaakov, Parshas Vayeira.