Table for Five: Vayera
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
[Abraham said,] “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth perform justice?” Gen. 18:25
Rabbi Marc D. Angel, Director, Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals (jewishideas.org)
I like to think that Abraham, who was 58 years old when Noah died, spent some time with his elderly grandfather. Noah would have told him about the great flood, and how God destroyed all of humanity—only saving the righteous Noah and family. Abraham internalized this message. God is just. He destroys the wicked but spares the righteous.
When God informed Abraham that He was about to destroy Sodom, Abraham was surprised. In Noah’s day, God only destroyed the wicked but spared the righteous; now, it seems that God was changing the rules. He threatened to destroy the entire population, wicked and righteous alike. Abraham protested: by Your own standard of justice set in the time of Noah, it is not right to destroy the righteous along with the wicked.
But then Abraham took a leap of faith: what he wanted from God was not justice, but mercy. Abraham did not ask God to spare the righteous of Sodom, he asked to spare the entire population – including the wicked – for the sake of its righteous residents. Perhaps those righteous people would somehow be able to influence the wicked residents to repent their evil ways.
And this is what separated Abraham from his grandfather Noah. Noah was content to accept God’s justice. For Abraham, justice was not enough. Abraham sought God’s mercy.
Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org
It is very easy sometimes when reading the Torah to forget that God is God, you know, Omnipotent, Omniscient, etc. When Avraham questions God’s sense of justice, and then bargains for the lives of the people of Sodom and Gomorra, this is certainly the case.
On the surface of it, Avraham’s response seems nothing short of major chutzpah. But the thinking student of Torah knows that something else is going on here, knowing that Avraham knew EXACTLY with Whom he spoke, and that he would NEVER have spoken to Him with any chutzpah whatsoever. Furthermore, if God is above time, why did He allow Himself to be bargained with? Why didn’t God just go with His “bottom line,” and avoid the discussion altogether?
One explanation is that we are being taught an important lesson about how to interact with God, especially during times of Divine decree. We learn from this how God is prepared to adjust His decrees, even “soften” them, if someone is prepared to step up on behalf of others and take responsibility for them. God looks for human “partners” to “help” Him perfect Creation, and nothing pleases Him more than when He finds one, or two, etc. Once He does, He allows them to assist in the direction of history, a great merit. This was Avraham, and by being so forthright, he proved himself a worthy associate of God. God showed him this by allowing him to bargain with Him as an “associate” for all the doomed cities.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, Vice-President of Community Engagement, Board of Rabbis of Southern California
My son recently took a cycling class. To accompany him, I re-learned how to ride a bike. He showed me how the gear shift works – turning the gear shift toward me lowers the gear, making pedaling easier but gives each rotation less power. Turning the gear shift away from me to a higher gear makes pedaling harder but allows the bike to go further and faster.
The gear shift has become a metaphor for me on the holidays and Jewish life. Like turning up the gear shift, Judaism turns my focus away from myself and makes life harder. Without Judaism this month, I wouldn’t have had to fast, lead and attend services, build and decorate the sukkah, invite guests, etc. But Judaism also gives life more ‘umpf’ – more power and meaning. Without the hard work of the holidays, I would have missed extraordinary moments, from sitting in the sukkah to dancing on Simchat Torah.
Abraham’s confrontation with God about the Sodomites represents perhaps the first quintessentially Jewish moment in Abraham’s life – where he challenges God to live up to God’s dream of justice – reminding God that even God is not above the law. Rabbi Ed Feinstein described this moment as a “celebration of chutzpah, of covenantal audacity.” If only Abraham had exercised the same chutzpah in standing up for his son (when asked to sacrifice him)!
In this new year, both in our families and in advocating for justice, let’s embody Abraham’s chutzpah and take life a gear higher.
Afshine Emrani, MD, FACC, Medical Director at Los Angeles Heart Specialists
Question everything. Even God. What radical teaching! The questioning mind is the biggest gift the Jews have given the civilized world.
Questions are the basis of the scientific method. Questions are how we grow and discover the insides of cells and the distant galaxies. In our tradition, questions are as holy as are the answers.
Judaism is not the religion of surrender, but that of struggle with the physical and spiritual world. Challenge authority. Challenge dogma. That is what Abraham is teaching us. His lessons: 1) If there is an absolute morality, then even God is not above it. God must act according to the code of ethics. If a prophet comes along and tells us to kill innocent people, that is a fake religion, a fake voice. We must rise up and argue against immorality everywhere. 2) We Jews hold life precious. We believe strongly in the sanctity of life. Jewish doctors all over the world fight diseases to keep Jews and non-Jews alive and well. Life over death. L’Chaim! Killing should never be taken lightly. Even at war. Even as a punishment by God. 3) The entire world is made of the balance between justice and mercy. Too much mercy becomes evil. If you are kind to the cruel, says the Talmud, you become cruel to the kind. But, too much justice, also, becomes evil with the inflexibility to see the good in anything, any situation or any people. Question everything. Especially the things you take for granted.
Cantor Michelle Bider Stone, Shalom Hartman Institute of North America
Why did God choose Abraham? When God tells Abraham that he is destined to be a great nation, the Torah does not explain why. It is only in this chapter, when God shares with Abraham the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, that God reveals: “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just (tzedakah u’mishpat).”
Abraham is chosen because he will teach humankind to be “right and just.” Abraham then challenges God on this very point, defending the potentially righteous people living in Sodom and Gomorrah. And God welcomes the rebuke.
Is it possible that Abraham understands what is required for justice more than God? Rabbi David Hartman explains that Abraham emerges in this story as God’s “worthy partner in history.” While the God of nature acts alone, the God of history is in covenantal relationship with humanity. The practice of Judaism is a partnership with God in carrying out what is right and just. But we must go beyond asking God to act justly. We must do the same. The story also teaches that we are required to speak up, to challenge and push back when we see injustice. And, like Abraham, we don’t stop seeking what is right and just until we have exhausted all options. In doing so, we keep up our part in this divine covenant.
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