Here’s a controversial line I read the other day:

“We cannot force another country to change its values and customs so they better reflect our own. But we don't have to accept them, either. Some customs and values are not worthy of our tolerance.”

Do you agree or disagree?

It’s a thorny issue. Most of us understand the virtue of tolerance—and the dangers of too much tolerance at the same time.

It’s so thorny, in fact, that we ask G‑d every day (three times a day, no less!) to help us with this very issue.

Allow me to explain.

Protect Me … From Abraham?

Our parshah introduces us to one of our nation’s greatest characters: its founder, Abraham. His story is a colorful one, full of twists and turns and a general bucking of trends. One such story is how he single handedly intervenes in a war between nine kings on behalf of his nephew Lot, and helps the underdogs pull off a victory.

After these dramatic events, we read:

The word of G‑d came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Fear not, Abram; I am your Shield; your reward is exceedingly great.”1

In this vein, we make a blessing thrice daily in the Amidah prayer, “... the shield of Abraham.”

The words are simple enough. But one Chassidic master treats these words and comes up with an extremely counterintuitive interpretation, essentially rendering the words as a blessing to G‑d “... Who protects/shields us FROM Abraham.” Instead of reading it as, “G‑d, protect us as You did Abraham,” we are to understand it as, “G‑d, please protect us from Abraham.” Similarly, when G‑d told Abraham, “I am your shield,” the intention was, “Abraham, I will protect you from yourself.”

What does that mean? Why would we want to be shielded from Abraham? He was one of the all-time greats!

And why would Abraham need to be protected from himself?

Too Much Tolerance

Abraham was the paragon of kindness. Pure, unbridled, uninhibited kindness. His four-sided tent with doors open to passersby from every direction is the stuff of legends. In Kabbalistic thought, Abraham embodied the supernal attribute of chessed, G‑d’s character of love and kindness. In contrast, his son, Isaac, is the one known as the stern disciplinarian.

Now, kindness is great, an abundance of kindness even better, but left completely uninhibited, it’s absolutely catastrophic. When “peace and love” are completely unfettered, you get Abraham’s other son: Ishmael—a thieving, lewd, and brute individual.

When you’re too nice, you become tolerant of things you really shouldn’t be tolerating. Sometimes, you must rein in the niceness and exercise discipline, being a bit more discriminate with what you tolerate.

To simply pick up your hands and say, “I accept. I want to be nice and will not do anything to show discipline or disapproval,” may sound noble, but ultimately, it’s a shortsighted mistake. At some point, your allowance may even be interpreted as endorsement—first by others, and then ultimately, by you, yourself. This is not an outcome anyone wants.

It was a mistake for Abraham to tolerate Ishmael and allow him to grow into the unforgivable character he became, and we shouldn’t do the same.

Protect Me From Myself

That’s why G‑d blessed Abraham with protection from … himself. For the wisdom to sometimes exercise the necessary discipline and discernment to navigate life and not unintentionally spawn off terrible results.

We, too, need that blessing. Every day, our inner Abraham naturally wakes up roaring and ready to be nice to everyone, to be uber tolerant of everything. And that’s a good thing. It’s the natural state of being for most people because G‑d indeed does want us to be accepting, to be tolerant, and to be loving.

But we could also use a blessed amount of help to maintain the moral and emotional intelligence to know when it’s time to put a lid on that tolerance, to put up a “shield.” So three times a day we ask G‑d to “Shield us from Abraham.” Protect us from ourselves, and give us the courage to be discerning when we ought to be.2