The tension and ultimate destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah stand at the core of Parashat Vayera. God’s quality of justice is ironically put on trial. One midrash places the following words in the mouth of Abraham as he encourages God to think twice about the immanent destruction of these towns: “If You seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if You seek strict justice, there will be no world . . . You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure” (Genesis Rabbah 39:6). As moving as Abraham’s philosophical discourse is, it is the step before these words that leads the reader to marvel at the extraordinary gumption of our ancestor. How could Abraham, a human being of mere flesh and blood, stand before the Creator of the Universe and challenge the Divine decree? The answer can be found in three simple Hebrew words (or five English words) of the parashah: va’yigash Avraham va’yomar, “And Abraham approached and spoke.”
Commenting on the opening phrase, va’yigash, that Abraham approached God, Rashi, the prolific medieval commentator, opens an insightful window into the angst of our prophet. Rashi explains the variant ways in which va’yigash is employed throughout the Tanakh, the Hebrew Scriptures. He writes, “we find an approaching toward confrontation or war as with Yoav (Chronicles I 19:14); we also find a coming close in order to comfort and appease, as in the case of Yehudah drawing near to Joseph (Genesis 44:18); finally, we discover a coming close to pray as in the case of Eliyahu HaNavi (Kings I 18:36).” Having surveyed all of the possible contexts in which a biblical character draws near, Rashi closes his comment on verse 23 by writing, ‘for it was in the spirit of all of these that Abraham drew near to God, to speak harshly, to appease and comfort, and also to pray.’ In one sentence, Rashi captures this liminal moment as Abraham challenges God’s decree. Emotions were running high in Abraham. He wrestled with a desire to fight a battle for the righteous who were to be punished with the wicked, with a sincere hope of speaking with respect and love to God, and with the need for self-reflection. All of the above come together in a magnificent moment of self-reflection as Abraham courageously places himself in the presence of God. It is only then that he begins to speak and to question, “Will the judge of the earth not act justly?”
Abraham offers us all a lesson in honest, meaningful relationships not only with God but also with our fellow human beings. How often do we suppress strong feelings, emotions, and principles for the sake of avoiding conflict? How often are we guilty of desiring to maintain the deceptive peace of shallow relationships rather than take them a step further – to a place where sincerity may be found? Abraham, in all of his eloquent chutzpah, teaches us the importance of speaking up for the principles we hold dear. He approaches God with a sense of determination, respect, and self-reflection. And out of a moment undoubtedly fraught with intimidation, he transcends himself – leading the way for God. Only then does Abraham speak his heart and mind to God.
May we all find the strength that resides in the well of each of our souls – to hold fast to principles we hold dear and to communicate a passionate commitment to that essence with a sense of pride and derekh eretz.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi