Separate from me, for we are kinsmen – Parshat Lekh Lekha

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Disputing is a regular thing among humans. Each one has the capacity and the freedom of holding a personal idea; different convictions may derive in an argument. Arguments may be a source of spiritual enrichment, as well as the development of personality and of interpersonal relations. However they may sometimes derive in conflicts or even fights.

We may define three levels: argument (that can be fruitful and enriching), conflict (where each one is fixed in his own position without respecting the other’s idea) and fight (where the conflict becomes violent: not only there is no respect of the other’s idea, but where the intention is to silence it by physical subjugation).

The first two levels, the argument and the conflict, are based on disagreement about ideas; they are therefore typical human. The fight, on the other hand, adds verbal and physical violence, an animal behavior where ideas are not important, but only physical power to subdue the enemy.

We all risk to fall from conflict to fight, even though it is an animal reaction; we have to do all the efforts to move away from this destructive option.

What about conflict? Shouldn’t we avoid it? Sometimes we manage to do so. But mostly it is easier for us to be fixed in our conceptions and not to bestow substance on the other’s idea. This fixation is the reason of going from an argument to a conflict. We cannot always avoid a conflict. More than avoiding the conflict, it should be more positive and effective to learn how to deal with it without declining into a fight and how to get out of it after having entered the conflict.

Dealing with a conflict in a constructive way depends on the capacity of respecting the other person. Respect means to bestow upon the other meaning, existence, weight. In Hebrew the word respect, kavod, is close to weight, koved. We don’t have to actually agree with the other’s conception, but we must bestow upon it substance and existence. In this way both conceptions, his and mine, prevail.

This is an approach that must be present in both parties of a conflict. Each one must know and accept that one is equal to the other regarding his or her ideas and standpoints, even when they cannot agree on them. If one thinks the other is inferior, vile, deplorable, defective, ignominious… the respect is gone and there is neither a constructive, nor effective conflict dealing. Conversely, if one thinks of himself as winner, superior, hero, accepted, elevated over the other… neither here there is any respect. Even more, if one accepts the other out of mercy, piety, commiseration, it isn’t more than arrogance and patronizing, but no respect: one is regarded as needy, impaired and the other one as complete and prominent.

Sometimes preserving respect requires separation. This is also a solution: both parties acknowledge their limitations and the difficulty of being together. In order to preserve fraternity, love and mutual respect, we shouldn’t force the parties to live under one roof when this tends to create conflict.

The relationship between Abraham and Lot was of this kind. For them it is apparent that common life may be possible when one of them surrenders (nullifies himself) to the other. Wisely Abraham declares: “Let there be no strife between you and me…for we are kinsmen… Separate from me” (Gen. 13:8-9).

The Malbim, in his commentary to these verses, explains that the strife was produced because they were kinsmen. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the verse does not say “between us”, but “you and me”. I understand by this that Abraham bestows upon Lot the same importance that he does upon himself. He does not say “Don’t quarrel with me”, as if the center of the conflict were Lot; neither he says “between us”, so as to blur the differences. “Between me”, with my conceptions and my existence, “and you”, with your conceptions and your existence. The positions are so opposed that if we continue living together we will end by not respecting one another; we will try to subjugate the other one and to nullify his status.

Does this separation mean severing the relations? No! The proof comes several verses afterwards, when Abraham rescues Lot from captivity. It is rather as Rashi explains: ” ‘If you go to the left, I will go to the right‘: wherever you’ll be, I won’t be far from you and I will help and protect you”.

We had an argument, we were fixed in our conceptions, we developed a conflict, we couldn’t get out of it, but we will always take care of the mutual respect. Therefore, separate from me so as to continue being kinsmen.

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