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And Hashem said, "Shall I conceal from Avraham what I do? Now that Avraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice, in order that Hashem might then bring upon Avraham that which He had spoken of him." So Hashem said, "Because the outcry of Sedom and Amorah has become great, and because their sin has been very grave. I will descend and see - If they act in accordance with its outcry -- then destruction! And if not, I will know." The men had turned from there and went to Sedom, while Avraham was still standing before Hashem. Avraham came forward and said, "Will You also stamp out the righteous along with the wicked? What if there should be fifty righteous people in the midst of the city? Would You still stamp it out rather than spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people within it? (Bereishis 17-24).
It is interesting that the passage describing Hashem's love for our Patriarch Avraham immediately precedes the episode of the destruction of Sedom and Amorah. I think that there is a great lesson to be learned from it.
In Neveh, we taught our students to be tolerant of all groups of Orthodox Jews who learn Torah and serve Hashem, even if their customs and practices are different from ours. One should not be nearsighted and believe that only he and his group who follow his Rabbi will be rewarded in the World-to-Come; while everyone else in the Jewish Nation will be punished for not doing it their way. One should realize that there are many different ways to serve Hashem and, although his way may be best suited for him, someone else's way is equally best suited for him.
A principal of a Yeshiva High School, who was impressed with this philosophy, nevertheless asked me if I also teach tolerance of groups who teach intolerance. When I answered in the affirmative, the principal asked me how that could be. "How can you be tolerant of those who are diametrically opposed to what you teach?" he asked.
I replied that the answer lies in this week's parashah. Avraham's attribute was lovingkindness and he taught his children to follow in his ways and to do charity and justice. In Sedom, they did the exact opposite. They weren't satisfied with being cruel to others; they taught their children to be unkind too and even legally forbade anyone from being sympathetic to others. We would expect Avraham to be happy that such terrible people were about to be destroyed by Hashem. Yet the Torah teaches us that Avraham launched a major campaign to stop Hashem from annihilating them and when his first attempt failed he tried another argument and then another until he realized that his efforts were futile.
"As children of Avraham," I concluded, "we are expected to go in his ways and be tolerant even of those who are not."
However, being tolerant does not exclude or exempt us from the obligation to reprimand one who actually sins. The Satmarer Rebbe ztvk"l was a righteous zealot who was deeply concerned for the honor of Hashem and His Torah and fought with all who would disgrace them. Many who disagreed with the Rabbi's approach argued that as a Chassidic Rebbe, he should surely go in the paths of the Ba'al Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidus) and his followers, specifically Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev (known as "the Berdichever Rav" or just "the Berdichever"). These great men were outstanding in their love for every single Jew and always found merit in their actions, even those which were questionable, as is retold by Chassidim worldwide in countless stories
The Rebbe of Satmar would answer his critics that we cannot learn Halacha (Jewish Law) from stories. First of all, he explained, most "Chassidishe stories" are either false or exaggerated. Secondly, even those which happen to be true must be understood in light of the crucial background information which we usually do not have. It is important to know who was involved and what the situation was exactly, in order to draw the proper conclusions and learn how to behave in our circumstances. Thirdly, the Rebbe proved from interpretations of passages in Tanach that there is a difference between how to address the people and how to address Hashem concerning the people. One must always pray to Hashem for the welfare of all Jews and ask that the sinners repent and be worthy of His blessings. But when dealing with the sinners themselves, he should reprimand them as strongly as is necessary and try to get them to correct their ways.
The Rebbe illustrated his point by repeating a very famous story. "First I'll tell you the version that everyone knows," he said. "Then, I'll tell you what really happened.
"Everyone knows, "began the Rebbe "that the holy 'Berdichever' came out of shul one morning and discovered, to his horror, a Jew greasing the wheels of his wagon while wearing his talis and tefillin. The man who only saw good in every Jew and his actions, was overwhelmed. He turned around, went back into the shul and opened the Holy Ark. Standing before the Torah scrolls, the Rabbi who is known as the 'advocator of all Jews' said, 'Master of the Universe. Who amongst all of the Nations is like Your children, Israel? Just look and see, even when they grease the wheels of their wagons, they wear talis and tefillin!'"
The Satmarer Rebbe asked his critic if he was familiar with this account of the story and he said that he was. "Now I'll tell you what really occurred," the Rebbe said.
"The holy 'Berdichever' came out of shul one morning and discovered, to his horror, a Jew greasing the wheels of his wagon while wearing his talis and tefillin. The Rabbi approached the Jew and reprimanded him sharply. 'Jew,' he shouted, 'are you out of your mind? Do you realize the holiness of talis and tefillin? Don't you apprehend how disrespectful to them you are being?' Then, the holy man who truly loved every single Jew turned around, went back into the shul and opened the Holy Ark. Standing before the Torah scrolls, the Rabbi who is known as the 'advocator of all Jews' said, 'Master of the Universe. Who amongst all of the Nations is like Your children, Israel? Just look and see, even when they grease the wheels of their wagons, they wear talis and tefillin!'"
Shema Yisrael Torah Network