Not a “Yes Man”

Vayera By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Nov 11, 2006 / 20 Heshvan 5767

Dr. Yohanan Muffs, a beloved teacher of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, discusses the essential qualities of a prophet in his seminal article “Who Will Stand in the Breach?” Far from merely being the divine messenger, the prophet has the duty to act as an empathetic sounding board for God. More than that, the prophet must exercise his/her own free will in an effort to calm the divine temper. First and foremost, it is the responsibility of the prophet to push back on God. As one of my students in Atlanta pointed out this past week, it is as if the prophet is God’s ezer k’negdo, “a helper against himself.” The prophet does not stand passively by, mirroring divine emotion, but rather must be willing to access the gumption to confront God. This week’s parashah, Parashat Va–yera,; gives us a shining example of respectful and deliberate confrontation.

As God stands ready to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah for their evil, Abraham pushes back, “draws close to God and declares, ‘Will you include the righteous with the wicked?’ ” (Genesis 18:23). The sages explain that this expression “drawing close” speaks to the experience of prayer. Abraham, in the rabbinic imagination, begins praying for the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah ­ total strangers to him, but human beings nonetheless. Moreover, a midrash gives us a glimpse into the content of Abraham’s moving tefillah and exchange with God: “According to Rabbi Levi, Abraham said to God, ‘If You seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if You seek strict justice, there will be no world. Do You expect to take hold of the well’s rope at both ends? You desire a world and You also desire justice? You can have only one of the two. If You do not relent a little, the world will not endure’ ” (Genesis Rabbah 39:6). In the face of immanent divine retribution, Abraham refuses to cower. He is one with a keen vision and deeply human sense. Playing psychologist to God, Abraham calmly explains the desire and need to find balance between the qualities of justice and mercy. Overwhelming mercy has the potential to lead the world to chaos; and excessive justice has the potential to lead to destruction. Abraham’s prayer then combines the arguments of the intellect and the soul.

More than anything else, Abraham demonstrates the need to “stand in the breach.” While it would have been easy for Abraham to agree with God and acquiesce to the divine judgment, he recognizes the need to serve as a “sounding board.” To not serve God in this role would represent a failure of humanity. God created human beings not as automatons; God created humans in order to be in substantive relationship with them. And, like any other relationship, the humandivine connection is anything but static. As the Kotzker Rebbe points out, the tradition eschews characters who function as “yes men” to God. When Torah states, “lo ta’asun ken l’Adonai Eloheikhem,” (Deuteronomy 12:4) “You will not do likewise to the Lord Your God,” the Kotzker Rebbe translates the verse literally, “You will not make a ‘yes’ to God. . .”

May we learn from Abraham’s example of gumption and heartfelt prayer

The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.