Parashat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)
The call to protest grows larger each day. From the women’s march in Washington in January 2016 to the climate change rallies around the world, to the #MeToo movement and anti-sexual harassment demonstrations, to vigils protesting the separation of children from their parents in immigration detention. From concern at the rise in antisemitism worldwide, to outrage of the treatment of journalists uncovering truth in the face of unbridled power. We are overwhelmed at the work that needs to be done, work that perhaps some of us thought had been resolved but that has become urgent once again.
In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham makes the ultimate protest by challenging God’s intention to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. God declares that the outrage of the inhabitants of these cities is so great and their sin so grave that God will destroy them utterly (Genesis 18:20). Abraham feels compelled to plead for their lives posing the moral dilemma, “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” But their sin is so grave, it takes Abraham bargaining with God over how many innocent ones will allay God’s destructive force. Abraham forcefully argues, “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 deal justly?” (Gen 18:25) Abraham calls God to account for being a God of justice and God is moved to respond to this human cry for compassion. Here it seems Abraham is acting as God’s teacher instructing God in God’s own natural law, for the innocent cannot be held accountable for the grievous sin of the guilty.
However, my colleague Rabbi Malcolm Cohen points out that this call for compassion and justice is sandwiched between two other accounts of compassion. Prior to Abraham’s bargaining with God, we find in Chapter 18, Abraham welcoming strangers (anashim). As he sits at the door of his tent, he runs to greet them and falls down before them. He begs them not to pass by his tent and goes to wash their feet and brings them bread to eat. Following Abraham’s bargaining with God in Chapter 19, we find Lot in a similar situation. He welcomes two strangers (malachim), possibly two of those that Abraham welcomed, as he sits at the gate of the city of Sodom. He greets them and falls down before them. He entices them to stay, washes their feet and brings them bread to eat. The language of welcome corresponds from one story of hospitality to another. Sandwiched between these two narratives, we find Abraham bargaining with God for the lives of the people of the doomed cities.
Are the two accounts of hospitality and compassion shown by Abraham and Lot meant to contrast with the cruelty of the Sodomites such that Abraham has to force God to compassion? Can Abraham and Lot’s compassion be seen to be actually more instinctive and natural to human beings than to the Divine? In Genesis 18:22, does “Abraham yet stood before God” mean that Abraham was acting as a mentor and moral arbiter for God?
Our desire for compassion in a troubled world around us requires our moral courage and strong calls for a return to a moral compass. We demand that the innocent be protected and nations, peoples and races have the right to live in peace and freedom. The hatred and cruelty in the larger world should concern us greatly. We need to yet stand up and condemn that which we see as grave injustice. But our condemnation cannot only be on the global scale, for we have much on which to reflect in our own communities, workplaces and homes.
We need to revisit these sandwich narratives to discover the deeper meaning of the juxtaposition of these texts. Abraham’s welcoming of the strangers is at the expense of Sarah’s identity—once a partner in the promise from the “lech lecha” beginning, she is left with just a nervous laugh in anticipation of the birth of Isaac. By the end of the parasha, Isaac is taken by Abraham to be offered as a sacrifice, and soon after Sarah is dead. Lot also shows his own failings when in protecting the strangers, he offers up his own daughters to the mob of Sodom for their sexual desires. What seemed like a simple contrast between the virtues of Abraham and Lot to that of God now seems more nuanced. In their eagerness to show strangers their care and concern, they betrayed those closest to them.
Our concern for a moral compass cannot be only about the Yazhidis, the Rohingya, Palestinians civilians in Gaza and Israelis neighboring them. We have much to consider nearer to home. Sexual misconduct in colleges and the workplace continues to be rife, particularly in relation to the treatment of women by men. Racism, prejudice, intolerance of those with different color skin or facial features is abhorrently nurtured. Gender identity and sexual preferences continue to engender fear and persecution. We cannot say that humanity in the 21st century has eagerly embraced compassion and justice for all. Rather we still have much to learn from a Divine Teacher who models a capacity to transform and change. We all need to learn how to do justice as we are created with God’s capacity for justice, compassion, reflection and change.
Rather than Abraham and Lot’s hospitality shedding light on God’s justice, the Sodom and Gomorrah narrative comes to powerfully remind us, in our own everyday world, that God’s ethical imperative needs to appear – Vayera – if we are to learn how to really resolve the fault lines in power, gender, sexuality, racism, xenophobia and intolerance among us. Through our protests against injustice, do we open ourselves to being tested as Abraham is tested time and again? For only in doing so, will we merit the name Yisrael – the one who struggles with and for God’s justice.
Rabbi Michael Shire, PhD is Chief Academic Officer at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA. He also serves as Dean of Hebrew College’s Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education.