Avraham’s older son, Yishmael was a troubled adolescent. The offspring of his union with Hagar, princess of Egypt, his challenges were tolerable, as long as no other young, impressionable children were present in the house. But then Yitzchak was born. The child Sarah and Avraham had longed for all these decades arrived into their lives, and the future of the Hebrew people would be changed forever.
Knowing that Yitzchak was the key to the legacy of monotheism, Sarah did everything she could to shield him from the idolatrous influences that surrounded them. As she placed her head on her pillow each night, however, she realized that, no matter how much she protected him from foreign forces outside the house, the lingering issue was ever-present. Yishmael was a terrible influence on his brother and he had to go.
Imagine the pain Avraham felt upon being confronted by the love of his life, Sarah, and told that he must expel his own flesh and blood from the home. He was torn. He certainly was not blind to the challenges facing the family on a daily basis. But to throw his child out on to the street? How could he contemplate such an act? He turned to the Almighty for guidance and was told, “Everything Sarah says to you, hearken unto her voice.”
בָּעֵי רַב בִּיבִי בַּר אַבָּיֵי: הִדְבִּיק פַּת בַּתַּנּוּר הִתִּירוּ לוֹ לִרְדּוֹתָהּ קוֹדֶם שֶׁיָּבוֹא לִידֵי חִיּוּב חַטָּאת, אוֹ לֹא הִתִּירוּ? אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב אַחָא בַּר אַבָּיֵי לְרָבִינָא: הֵיכִי דָּמֵי? אִילֵּימָא בְּשׁוֹגֵג וְלָא אִידְּכַר לֵיהּ, לְמַאן הִתִּירוּ? וְאֶלָּא לָאו דְּאִיהַדַּר וְאִידְּכַר, מִי מִחַיַּיב?! וְהָתְנַן: כׇּל חַיָּיבֵי חֲטָאוֹת — אֵינָן חַיָּיבִין עַד שֶׁתְּהֵא תְּחִלָּתָן שְׁגָגָה וְסוֹפָן שְׁגָגָה. אֶלָּא בְּמֵזִיד. ״קוֹדֶם שֶׁיָּבֹא לִידֵי אִיסּוּר סְקִילָה״ מִיבְּעֵי לֵיהּ! אָמַר רַב שֵׁילָא: לְעוֹלָם בְּשׁוֹגֵג, וּלְמַאן הִתִּירוּ — לַאֲחֵרִים. מַתְקִיף לַהּ רַב שֵׁשֶׁת: וְכִי אוֹמְרִים לוֹ לָאָדָם ״חֲטָא כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּזְכֶּה חֲבֵירְךָ״
Rav Bibi bar Abaye asked: One who erred and stuck bread in the oven on Shabbat, did they permit him to override a rabbinic prohibition and remove it before it bakes, i.e., before he incurs liability to bring a sin-offering for baking bread on Shabbat, or did they not permit? Rav Acḥa bar Abaye responded to Ravina: What are the circumstances? If you say that he stuck the bread to the oven unwittingly and did not remember either that today was Shabbat or that it is prohibited to do so on Shabbat, to whom did they permit to remove it? If he remains unaware that a prohibition is involved, it will not occur to him to ask whether or not he is permitted to remove the bread before it bakes.
But rather, is it not a case where, before it baked, he remembered that it is prohibited? In that case, is he liable to bring a sacrifice? Didn’t we learn: All those who sin unwittingly and are therefore liable to bring sin-offerings are only liable if the beginning of their action was unwitting and the end of their action was unwitting. Rather, say that that person stuck the bread in the oven intentionally, but afterward regretted his action. But then it should have said: Before he comes to violate a capital prohibition (as opposed to a sacrifice).
Rav Sheila said: Actually, it is referring to a case where he did so unwittingly. With regard to whom is the question of the permissibility of removing the bread? It is with regard to other people. For if they were to commit the minor misdemeanor of removal of the bread, they would spare him of the biblical prohibition of inserting and removing. Rav Sheshes challenged this: Do we ever tell one person: Sin so that another will benefit?
Rav Sheshes teaches that we never ask a person to commit a minor misdemeanor in order to avoid their friend transgressing a major prohibition. To simplify this principle with a somewhat extreme example, let’s say your aged uncle is at home on Shabbat. He says to you that he feels like eating a meat sandwich. You open the fridge and you see a packet of ham. You suggest to him that he has a peanut butter sandwich, but he insists he wants a meat sandwich.
You are now faced with a dilemma. Sure enough, in our area, we have an eruv (permitting carrying), and we have a store that is open 24-7 that sells kosher meat. Should you offer to go to the store and buy some kosher salami? Doing so would transgress the rabbinic injunction against buying and selling on Shabbat. But if you don’t go, he’ll transgress a biblical prohibition of eating non-kosher, a much more serious violation.
What should you do? Should you do the ‘little sin’ and save him from the ‘big sin’? That’s when the Gemara’s principle is activated: We never ask a person to commit a minor misdemeanor in order to avoid their friend’s major transgression. If he chooses to eat the ham, that is his choice.
Think of it like this. Your soul is strong and robust. Acting contrary to the Divine weakens your soul. Our Sages compare our connection to Hashem to a rope binding us to our Heavenly source. Every ‘little’ misdemeanor causes a tiny strand of the rope to come loose. Sure, it won’t snap the rope, but it weakens it nonetheless. You must do your best to maintain the strength of your spiritual connection. As difficult as it might be for you to see your friend’s soul suffering, your own soul shouldn’t be made to suffer on account of their spiritual choices.
The Torah is a guide to life. And our relationship with Heaven mirrors our human relationships. Consequently, we must always be mindful of how the Torah’s principles apply with regards to our interactions with our fellow human beings. What role does Rav Sheshes’s message play in our own lives?
Sometimes we allow ourselves to ‘sin’ in order to spare our loved ones. Believing that we’re saving someone else from greater suffering, we subject ourselves to unfair suffering. You might be in a relationship with someone who is treating you in an unacceptable manner. You reason with yourself and say that they need you. If you were to leave them, who knows what might happen to them. So you suffer in silence, because you know that you’re the one standing between them and their demons.
But the Gemara’s principle is that we never ask a person to commit to a minor amount of spiritual or physical suffering in order to avoid their friend causing themselves major harm. It’s no mitzvah to remain in an abusive relationship. Maybe you feel that you’re helping this individual. But if it’s coming at the expense of your own mental health, it is not an acceptable situation.
You may have convinced yourself that your lot in life is to be their savior, but Hashem is not looking for martyrs. He wants your mind, body, and soul to be strong and robust, and to achieve the very best. Staying in the relationship is causing harm to you, and we never tell a person to accept minor suffering, even in the face of another’s greater suffering.
Clearly, this principle applies to the spousal relationship. What might not be as obvious is that it applies equally to other familial relationships, including those with our siblings, children, and parents. While we may not forsake our loved ones in their time of need, there is no mitzvah to remain in an abusive relationship. So how do we navigate relationships where we are suffering without forsaking our loved ones?
Let’s consider the mitzvah to honour one’s parents. Sometimes, parents can be difficult to deal with. They may have always been that way, due to their nature or upbringing. Or, as happens more frequently, the difficulties might have arisen with the challenges of old age. With age, some people become less patient. And it’s often not their fault. In so many instances, they’re simply no longer the masters of their words and actions, due to factors beyond their control, such as the terrible affliction of dementia.
While you understand their challenges and don’t blame them for the way their treating you, sometimes it can become too much to handle. As hard as it might be to call it abuse, if your mental health is suffering on account of their awful treatment of you, you need to maintain the self-awareness to determine when the relationship has become intolerable.
Is it their fault? That’s not the question. If, as a result of the suffering they’re causing you, you are unable to function effectively in other areas of your life, including other relationships in your life, you need to be honest with yourself and ask yourself what is the best way to proceed for the most positive way forward for everyone.
In the case of honouring parents, the Torah clearly states that we are obligated to do so. However, not everyone is aware of the practicalities of the duty. Our Sages explain that the mitzvah’s parameters are to provide food, clothing, and shelter for your parent. Ideally, you should be there for them physically to provide these necessities. But if you’re finding the face-to-face interactions too much to bear, you may appoint a shliach (agent) to act on your behalf. You are still caring for them and fulfilling your personal and spiritual duty. Nevertheless, at the same time, you have found a way to do the mitzvah and avoid harboring hurt and resentment.
Just like Avraham, sometimes in life, we're called upon to make difficult decisions regarding our loved ones. Our Father in Heaven needs our minds, bodies, and souls to operate at peak performance, without being unfairly compromised by the spiritual challenges of others. May you find ways to maximize your performance levels and the strength of those around you!