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Lech Lecha: Boundaries and Benevolence

A quick search for the term “boundaries” in Psychology Today will yield 7,943 blog posts and 229 articles all discussing this important topic. If you ask people to list the topmost contributing factors to healthy and effective relationships – personal or professional – they will tell you, second perhaps to trust and communication, about the importance of boundaries. A boundary serves as a divider between people, places, and entities. It tells us where one person or thing ends and another begins. Boundaries allow us to maintain a sense of self, to protect our privacy, and to have clearly delineated limits in our relationships, helping to keep them defined and appropriate.

At the same time, if you ask anyone what tends to get in the way of good relationships, they will similarly tell you – in addition to mistrust and issues in communication – about the impact of poor boundaries. They will tell you about the struggle to be kind and generous while setting limits with others that effectively maintain healthy relationships and preserve their own needs and energy. They will bemoan the hardship of generosity, of being accused of being “too open,” and how they’ve been burned by their attempts at kindness and connection, and have opted instead for boundaries. Psychologically, we prefer to know the limits of things, and we feel violated and offended when others cross the lines we set. And yet, the challenge is this: Can we observe our own limits while still being kind, generous, and genuine with others? Can we stick to our values while accepting others whose values are dissimilar – even diametrically opposed – to ours?

Avraham Avinu was a righteous and Godly human being of epic proportions. His greatness and good deeds define us as a nation, and underlie the very fabric of our peoplehood. Avraham’s story laid the groundwork for the foundation of our history, and that story largely begins at the end of last week’s parsha, Noach, continuing in this week’s Parsha, Lech Lecha.

In exploring the tales of Avraham’s life and legacy, we encounter many paradigmatic moments that underscore his prominence and piety, and his predominant Middah of Chesed, kindness. Chazal tell us in various places, including in the Medrash Socher Tov on Tehillim (110), Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avos 1:5, and Bereishis Raba 48:9, that Avraham Avinu’s tent was open on all sides, demonstrating his passion for having guests, a manifestation of his Middah of Chesed. Kindness is the character trait for which Avraham Avinu is most well known, and it is the primary motivation for so many of his actions. Avraham’s Chesed and openness is further illustrated when he travels with the “nefesh asher asu b’charan,” the followers he and Sarah had amassed through their warmth, kindness, knowledge and charisma, taking all of these people with him on his way to Canaan (12:5). Avraham did not just teach people about God and send them into the world; he invited them into his home, where they became part of his household, his family.

In the shadow of these acts of kindness, however, a further exploration of Parshas Lech Lecha leaves us puzzled and confused. When Avraham and company arrive in Mitzrayim to avoid the famine in Canaan, they do so under cover of a false identity, claiming that Sarah is Avraham’s sister, not wife. Is it kind to lie to an entire nation, particularly a world power whose generosity and hospitality you are seeking? Furthermore, Lot, Avraham’s nephew who has traveled with Avraham and has formed a close connection with him, keeps this secret for his uncle and does not disclose Sarah’s true identity. And yet, when they leave Egypt and resettle in the Negev, suddenly Avraham and Lot can no longer coexist. The Pasuk says about Avraham and Lot, “V’lo Nasa Osam HaAretz Lasheves Yachdav… V’lo Yachlu Lasheves Yachdav,” the land could not bear to contain both of them, and they could not live together, – a line that, Lihavdil, reads like the Mesopotamian version of “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us.” (13:6).

Even before the fight between their shepherds, which occurs in the next Pasuk (13:7), Avraham recognizes something in Lot that stirs him to tell Lot to leave and go to live elsewhere. Where is the kindness and generosity, the open-door policy, the Middah of Chesed so synonymous with Avraham, when he seemingly casts aside his own nephew, who has kept his secrets for him? This question will only be strengthened in next week’s Parsha, when Avraham sends away Hagar and Yishmael. How can we understand Avraham’s seemingly unkind behavior in the context of his Middah of Chesed?

In many places in Tanach, the Torah refers to adultery and immoral sexual behavior as “Chesed.” This illustrates that kindness and openness without boundaries or limits is not true kindness; in fact, it can be destructive to oneself and one’s values. Chesed without restrictions can lead to confusion and immorality. Another of Avraham’s stellar qualities that set him apart was, in fact, his ability to set himself apart from others, to stand firm in his beliefs and stick to his values no matter the kind of situation in which he found himself. Though kindness and openness were intrinsic and essential elements of Avraham’s personality, these were also tempered by his ability to set limits and enforce appropriate boundaries when necessary. Avraham’s Middah of Chesed did not undermine his individualism or impair his moral compass; he was benevolent, but not a people-pleaser, and was able to make wise and ethical decisions as a result.

In the Haamek Davar, the Netziv writes regarding the Pasuk “V’Lo Yachlu Lasheves Yachdav” that Avraham and Lot could not live close together because Avraham recognized qualities in Lot and his values that differed greatly from his own. Though there was much that Lot had learned from, and, as we will see in Parshas VaYeirah, internalized and actualized from living with Avraham, there were fundamental differences in their beliefs and principles that divided them and made it impossible for them to continue a close relationship, except at a distance. Despite his desire to connect with his nephew and continue to act with benevolence toward him, Avraham gently and firmly broke away from Lot, and communicated clearly to him that this was not to spite Lot, but to preserve their relationship, as Avraham says, “let’s not fight… for we are brethren” (13:8). We see later that despite needing to set boundaries at that moment, Avraham still accesses his infinite generosity and dedication to Lot by literally going to war for him and saving his life.

As Avraham’s children, we have been taught from a young age to be kind, to be generous, to be selfless, to be open and accepting of all people. These are traits that make us the unique, loving, connected people we are so lucky to be. At the same time, it is not always easy to reach this synthesis of sharing with and giving to others while also setting limits and ensuring that we are doing what is best for ourselves and sticking to our values. Yet in studying Avraham’s behavior, we can be somewhat reassured that this is possible, for it is in our spiritual DNA. This week, let us strive to embody this important balance of being kind, accepting, open, and loving to all people, being willing to go to war for our friends and family, inviting in anyone and everyone to bring them closer to truth, and closer to themselves – while also knowing and observing our limits, and maintaining proper boundaries around our private lives, ensuring relationships are appropriate and defined, synthesizing benevolence with boundaries.

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