Be Like Avraham (Vayera 5783 / 2022)
November 12, 2022
The Dead Sea (called the Salt Sea in Hebrew.) Some connect these salt flats with the story of Sodom and Amora, in which Lot's wife is turned into a pillar of salt.
As Jews we trace our spiritual lineage back to Avraham. We call him "Avraham Avinu," Abraham our Father. What was it that made Avraham worthy of being the progenitor of the entire Jewish people? Hold that question; we'll come back to it. First, a quick recap of one story from this week's parsha.
God says: the outcry from these cities is so great! If it's as bad as I hear, I'm going to wipe them out. Avraham pushes back: c'mon, God, is that fair? What if there are 50 righteous people? Or 45? Or 40? and he bargains God down to 10. For the sake of a minyan of righteous people, they'll be spared.
This isn't the first time God has gotten angry at humanity for wickedness. Though last time (the Flood) was a "gonna erase the Earth" kind of thing, a reboot of humanity. This time God's considering destroying a smaller subset: two towns from which apparently there is an outcry of suffering.
Anyone have theories on what the sin of Sodom was, to merit this kind of response from God?
In the words of the prophet Ezekiel, around 580 BCE, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.” That's a pretty damning indictment... and is still all too real.
Another interpretation is that Sodom really didn't welcome the stranger. When two messengers of God (aka angels) arrive to check out the scene, Lot urges them not to sleep outside. Sure enough, come nightfall, men bang on his door demanding that he hand over the strangers to be raped.
(Lot says, "Oh, no, don't do that -- take my daughters instead." Um... not actually an improvement.)
In the end, ten righteous souls can't be found, and the towns are destroyed. But this story is one of the reasons why God blessed Avraham to become the father of the Jewish people. Faced with God's initial plan, Avraham demands, "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?"
Avraham stands before the Kadosh Baruch Hu, God Almighty, and insists that God live up to God's own standards of righteousness. And God agrees. Sometimes I think of much of Genesis as God learning how to be in relationship with us. Like a new parent, finding that children are unpredictable.
Midrash speaks of angels created before us. But unlike the angels, we have free will. I like to imagine that God was pleased when Avraham pushed back. Maybe God was happy that one of God's children had become ethically aware enough to legitimately challenge God on a decision like this one.
Later in this parsha, God will make a different ask of Avraham and Avraham will not push back. That's the story of the binding of Isaac. To me, that was not Avraham's finest moment. And after that story, God never speaks to him again, which to me is an indication that yes, Avraham made a mistake.
Maybe there's comfort in knowing that even our greatest spiritual ancestors made mistakes. But pushing God to act justly is a move worth emulating. And readiness to question God, to rage against injustice, and to demand better for our world, is a very Jewish thing. It's a hallmark of who we are.
Avraham argued with God. And Moshe, Elijah, Jeremiah -- all of them disagreed with God, or pushed back, or asked God to change a divine decree. The Hasidic master R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev famously put God on trial, arguing that the Jews deserved better than what we'd gotten.
Perhaps consciously following in those footsteps, Jews in Auschwitz did the same one Rosh Hashanah. They called God to judgment for the horrific suffering of the Holocaust. Both stories end the same way: after declaring God guilty, they prayed and said Kaddish, proclaiming God's sovereignty.
Pushing back against injustice doesn't mean giving up on God or on hope. As Jews, we're called to argue with God and to decry injustice. Far from damaging our hope in a better future, that outcry is precisely how we move toward that better future. We demand justice, and we build it ourselves.
Being a Jew means being willing to call things what they are. It means speaking truth to power, even to God. And it means pursuing justice and doing what's right. Feeding the hungry, protecting the vulnerable. No matter who wins elections, those mitzvot are our covenant and our work in the world.
This is the d'varling Rabbi Rachel offered at Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)