Love yourself (and your family) as (much) as your neighbour (Eruvin 61)

Three years after the departure of Yishmael and Hagar, Avraham went to visit his son.  He arrived at noon and met Yishmael’s wife, a Moabite woman. He asked her, “Where is Yishmael?”

She replied, “He and his mother went to bring fruits and dates from the wilderness.”
“Give me some bread and water,” Avraham asked of her, “for I am tired from the rigors of the journey through the wilderness.”

“I have neither water nor bread,” she answered.

He told her, “When Yishmael comes, say to him, ‘An old man came from the land of Canaan to see you, and he said that you should change the threshold of your house, which is not good for you.’”

When Yishmael returned from the wilderness, she told him what had happened. Yishmael understood his father’s message.

Three years later, Avraham again went to visit his son. Avraham arrived at noon and found Yishmael’s new wife, Fatimah. He asked her, “Where is Yishmael?”
She replied, “He and his mother went to herd camels in the wilderness.”
“Please give me some bread and water,” he asked of her, “for I am tired from the rigors of the journey through the wilderness.”
She brought forth bread and water and gave them to him.

Avraham stood and prayed to God, and Yishmael’s house was filled with bounty and blessing. When Yishmael came back, his wife told him what had happened, and he understood that his father still loved him (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 29).

תַנְיָא: הִתִּיר רַבִּי שֶׁיְּהוּ בְּנֵי גָדֵר יוֹרְדִין לְחַמָּתָן, וְאֵין בְּנֵי חַמָּתָן עוֹלִין לְגָדֵר. מַאי טַעְמָא, לָאו מִשּׁוּם דְּהָנֵי עֲבוּד דַּקָּה, וְהָנֵי לָא עֲבוּד דַּקָּה?! כִּי אֲתָא רַב דִּימִי אָמַר: טַטְרוֹגֵי מְטַטְרְגִי לְהוּ בְּנֵי גָדֵר לִבְנֵי חַמָּתָן, וּמַאי ״הִתִּיר״ — הִתְקִין. וּמַאי שְׁנָא שַׁבָּת, דִּשְׁכִיחָא בָּהּ שִׁכְרוּת. טוכִּי אָזְלִי לְהָתָם, נָמֵי מְטַטְרְגִי לְהוּ? כַּלְבָּא בְּלָא מָתֵיהּ, שַׁב שְׁנִין לָא נָבַח.

Rebbe permitted the residents of Geder, situated at the top of a slope, to descend on Shabbat to Ḥamtan, situated at the bottom of the slope, but the residents of Ḥamtan not to ascend to Geder. What is the reason? Is it not because these, the inhabitants of Geder, constructed a barrier at the lower edge of their city, and these, the members of Ḥamtan, did not construct a barrier at the upper edge of their city? (Consequently, the residents of Geder measured their Shabbat limit from their barrier, and Ḥamtan was included in their two thousand cubits. The residents of Ḥamtan had to measure their Shabbat limits from their homes, and therefore Geder was not within their two thousand cubit limit).  When Rav Dimi came, he said: This ruling was issued not due to their respective Shabbat limits, but rather because the residents of Geder would assault the residents of Ḥamtan. And what does it mean that Rebbe permitted? It means that he instituted this ordinance to protect the public order.  So why particularly Shabbat? Because drunkenness is common then. But when the residents of Geder go down the hill, they could assault the residents of Hamtan in their city! Answer: A dog not in its place will not bark for seven years.

The meaning of the Gemara is that some people behave better when they’re not in their natural environment.  At work, out in public, they’re the sweetest, kindest, gentlest souls.  But something changes when they cross the thresholds of their homes.  The mask comes off and all the pent-up frustration of the day is unleashed on their poor families.  Outside their homes, these people wouldn’t dare ‘bark.’  Barking would lose clients, customers, jobs, community standing, societal stature.

Domestic abuse takes many forms.  While it may sometimes be physical, more often it takes the form of verbal and emotional abuse.  Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, who take their spouses and children for granted, assuming that no matter what happens, they’ll always be there.  That they have nowhere else to go.

Tragically, domestic abuse has been on the rise over the last few months.  The lockdown has meant that the abusers had nowhere to go to calm themselves down.  And the victims had nowhere to escape to.  May the Almighty have mercy upon us all and end this crisis very soon, a crisis which sees too many helpless victims face pain and suffering on a daily basis.

While most people, thank God, are not abusers, we all exhibit an element of this dichotomous behaviour.  We’re on our best behaviour when we deal with everyone else outside the four walls of our homes.  But we fail to maintain the same standards with those whom we love the most.

It might be a little thing they say that we snap back a thoughtless, demeaning response.  Or it might be an element of intolerance that we wouldn’t display towards strangers or even our friends.

Let’s say you encountered a young person in the community who had become a little sceptical about religion or even lax in their observance.  Would you treat them with disdain or dismissively?  Of course you wouldn’t.  You would accept their life choices and acknowledge that everyone is entitled to believe and practice as they see fit.  You might not agree with them, but you would continue to interact with them with the utmost dignity and respect.

But one day, your own teenager disappoints you with their religious behaviour.  And you can’t look them in the eye.  Why do they deserve your respect and tolerance any less than your friend’s kid? If it would be somebody else’s child, you would never dream of reacting as harshly.

That means that your child is not the problem.  The deficiency lies within yourself.  Your child is who they are.  They have a relationship with the Almighty which is between them and God.  But Heaven has sent you a challenge to test how you will react to this human being in front of you.  Will you treat them with respect and love, irrespective of their lifestyle choices?

That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t attempt, as a loving parent, to influence their decisions.  But all such attempts must come from a place of overflowing love.  First and foremost, your child must know that, whatever life decisions they make, it will not affect the level of love you have for them.  Once you’ve made that commitment to them, it’s OK to let them know why their choices don’t sit well with you or your family’s values.  And with God’s help, “words that come from the heart will enter the heart.”  But regardless of the outcome, they need to know that your love and respect for them is unceasing.

The Torah says “Love your neighbour as yourself.”  Sometimes the greater challenge is to ‘love your family members as your neighbours.’  May you forever shower your loved ones with boundless love, affection, and respect!

About the Author
Rabbi Daniel Friedman is the senior rabbi of the 1200-family Hampstead Garden Suburb Synagogue, the United Synagogue's flagship congregation.
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