The Parsha begins with the story of Avraham Avinu’s incredible chesed with the three Malachim. This is immediately followed by an account of the Malachim’s descent into Sodom and its subsequent destruction. Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l points out a very interesting factor in the juxtaposition of these two incidents; both have a great emphasis on hachnasas orchim (hosting guests). The story of Avraham is the classic demonstration of the attitude a person should have towards hachnasas orchim and the optimum way of providing for guests. We see how Avraham 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 mitzva of hachnasas 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 Avraham and the people of Sodom?
Rav Kamenetsky suggests an answer based on the other aspect of the Sodom story. Hashem tells Avraham about his plans to destroy Sodom because of their complete disregard for their fellow man. Avraham reacts with unlimited concern for these evil people and speaks to Hashem in such a forceful tone that he must first request that Hashem not be angry with him for speaking with such frankness. Rav Kamenetsky explains that the Torah is showing us an aspect of Avraham’s incredible level of bein adam lechaveiro. He writes that normally when a person excels in one area or character trait, he is particularly makpid (strict) on other people’s behavior in that same area. Consequently, he tends to judge them very harshly for their perceived failings in that area. He gives the example of a person who is careful to eat bread for Seudas Shlishis. He tends to view those who only eat fruit for their Seudas Shlishis very judgmentally. The Torah juxtaposes its account of Avraham’s greatness in hachnasas orchim with Sodom’s abject standing in the very same area, and then shows how, nonetheless, Avraham pleaded that Hashem treat Sodom with mercy. This shows that Avraham did not fall subject to the yetser hara to be more strict when judging others in an area of one’s own strengths. Despite the great gulf in his chesed and that of Sodom he showed great concern for their wellbeing.
We see from Rav Kamenetsky’s idea that it is not easy to look favorably on others’ weaknesses in one’s own area of strength. Why this is such a difficult undertaking? When a person excels in one area of midos he will find it very hard to understand how other people can be less zahir 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 avoda is 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 Avos 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 and therefore it is wrong to become frustrated with others’ weaknesses in his own areas of strength.
We find another example of Avraham’s greatness with regard to interacting with people on a lower level than himself. At the beginning of the Parsha the Torah goes to great lengths in describing the lavish meal that Avraham provided to the visitors, describing the delicious delicacies that he served. Rav Yissachar Frand Shlita points out that Avraham himself surely had little interest in indulging himself with such food. Nonetheless he did not impose his own level of prishus (separation from the physical world) on his guests and spared no effort in providing them with a lavish meal.
Rav Frand describes how one of our greatest recent Gedolim excelled in the area of not imposing their own high standards on other people; in the refrigerator in the home of Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l there were a number of food condiments such as pleasant tasting sauces. It is clear that Rav Feinstein himself did not place great importance on adding such sauces to make his food taste more pleasant - he lived in a far higher plane of existence where such physical pleasures were meaningless. Nonetheless he did not expect other people to aspire to his own high levels.
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 with seder. 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. This is an example of imposing one’s own way of doing things on other people and seems to be an unfair way of dealing with people. Rather, an excessively tidy person should accept that other people cannot keep the home tidy to the same extent. If the tidy 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 Avraham Avinu. Rav Kamenetsky teaches us another aspect of his excellent bein adam lechaveiro - that he did not impose his own high standards on other people and did not treat them in a strict way. May we all be zocheh to utilize our good midos only for the good.