Judaism can be misunderstood as a set of laws that focus solely on one’s relationship with God, with the interpersonal relationships between man and his fellow taking an unfortunate back seat. For some reason, it has become the practice for some to brush off righteousness in interpersonal conduct as unimportant and instead relegate its significance to the realm of “extra credit.” But this is a grave misconception, and one that does not align with Torah values. In fact, in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, we see how Judaism places the highest value on interpersonal relationships, and see that it not simply admirable to hone a positive and meaningful relationship with others, but is in fact an integral and essential facet of Jewish belief.
The verses in the beginning of Parshat Vayeira explain that God appeared to Abraham as he was sitting at the entrance of his tent. Abraham “lifted his eyes and there were three men standing before him. He saw them, and ran to greet them from the entrance to his tent, and bowed to them. He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, please do not pass over your servant. Let a bit of water be taken and wash your feet, and lean under the tree.”(Genesis 2-4). The simple understanding of this exchange is that Abraham was greeting his guests, and implored them not to pass by his tent but rather to avail themselves of his hospitality. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbat 127a has another fascinating idea on this story, which emphasizes the importance of positive interpersonal relationships within the Jewish tradition. The Talmud writes, “Welcoming guests is greater than greeting the Divine Presence. When Abraham was standing before God in prayer and he noticed some guests approaching, he said to Him, “If I have found favor in Your eyes, please do not leave me.” The Talmud here is suggesting that Abraham was not asking his guests not to pass over his home, but rather he was asking God to wait for him while he went to greet the travelers. Incredible. Abraham is speaking and communicating with the Divine Presence, and he puts that experience on hold in order to play host to three desert nomads? This begs an explanation — what is it about the act of hospitality in specific, and therefore interpersonal relationships in general, that makes it greater than communicating with the Divine?
The answer to this question lies in the explanation of the verse, “And you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:5) Asks Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook on this passage, how does a person show that he truly loves his Creator, not just with words, but also through concrete action? In answer, Rav Tzvi Yehuda explains that one who truly loves the Creator will also express that love to His other creations. As we read in Genesis 1:27, “And God created man in His image;…”. Rav Tzvi Yehuda cites the teaching of Rabbi Judah Loew (d.1609), otherwise known as the Maharal from Prague, who explains as follows: “When one loves God, it is impossible not to love his creations. And if a person hates mankind, it is impossible that he feels love for God who created them.”( Netivot Olam part two, 50). Therefore, when Abraham was in the presence and in the midst of a conversation with God, it was only natural that because of this great love, he would leave that one-on-one experience to welcome human beings, God’s children, who are created in His Image.
A story is told about the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, which highlights this idea of the importance of positive interpersonal relationships. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the founder and “Alter Rebbe” of Chabad and the author of the Tanya) and his grandson, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (known as the Tzemach Tzedek) were studying Torah in a three room house. The Alter Rebbe was engrossed in his studies in an inner room, the Tzemach Tzedek was engrossed in his studies in the middle room, and a baby was sleeping quietly in the outer room. The baby began to cry. The Tzemach Tzedek, immersed in his studies, did not hear the cry. The Alter Rebbe heard the cry from his place in the inner room and went to comfort the child. Upon his return to the inner room, the Alter Rebbe reprimanded his grandson: “If someone is studying Torah and fails to hear the crying of a Jewish child, there is something very wrong with his studying.”
One cannot love God at the expense of man, for if he does, then he does not truly love God at all. We must take care and continually strive to make both our relationship with God and our relationships with our fellows, the very best that they can be.