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Home » Vayera

Vayera: Abraham’s Plea

Submitted by on October 20, 2006 – 3:42 pmNo Comment | 2,605 views

Cruel and Unusual

Value systems differ from society to society, but we all agree that murder of innocent people is unconscionable. Why is it wrong to take a life at whim? Why are we against killing for sport? Well, that’s a ridiculous question, isn’t it? Anyone who doesn’t already know the answer is either a fool or an incurable criminal.

We all cringe at collective punishment. To punish the innocent alongside the guilty is what we consider cruel and unusual; our very souls are repulsed by such things. We intrinsically echo Abraham’s cry, “It is sacrilege to slay the righteous alongside the wicked.” (1)

Yet when we consider who Abraham was and who he was talking to we find it difficult to believe that he could speak this way. Abraham wasn’t talking to a despotic demagogue or to a Nathchalnik in a Soviet Gulag. He was talking to G-d!

Man of Faith

Abraham was a man of exemplary faith; he followed G-d’s every directive with unerring loyalty. If G-d requested it, Abraham believed it was just. He sent away his concubine, circumcised himself at an old age and was prepared to sacrifice his only son , all at G-d’s instruction. Abraham trusted implicitly that anything G-d wants must be good.

Yet, when G-d informed Abraham that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed, he was appalled. Notwithstanding his incredible faith, he demanded of G-d, “Would you slay the righteous alongside the wicked? Will the judge of all the earth not do justice?” Here is Abraham, a man of implicit faith, accusing G-d of injustice and possibly even murder! (2)

Light from Dark

On the first day of creation G-d distinguished between light and darkness. (3) The Midrash interpreted the words light and darkness as a metaphor for the righteous and the wicked. On the first day of creation G-d separated the righteous from the wicked. (4)

What is the purpose of this separation?

In a novel interpretation the Chassidic Masters explained that this separation is reserved for those unique moments when the majority of humanity has turned wicked. When the righteous are in the majority, the opposite is true; the righteous and the wicked are joined.

When the righteous are in the majority, G-d permits the wicked few to be absorbed into the majority and thus the wicked are spared. But, the very rule of majority that absolves the wicked when they are in the minority also condemns the righteous when they are in the minority.

It was for this that G-d separated the light from the darkness or the righteous from the wicked. On those rare occasions, when this separation is activated , it effectively suspends the rule of majority and the righteous are thus judged on their own merit.

If the law of majority were not reversed on such occasions the entire human race would perish. The law that was intended as an instrument of compassion would have become an instrument of cruelty. Concerned for the survival of humanity, G-d provided for the suspension of this law on the very first day of creation. (5)

Back to Abraham

This insight lends new perspective and a softer tone to Abraham’s words. When Abraham heard that the entire population of Sodom would die he assumed that the righteous were to be punished along with the wicket by majority rule. Since this was not a judgment of humanity, but of Sodom, he assumed that G-d had permitted the rule of majority to stand.

He pleaded with G-d to view the judgment victiminzing the rape victim - innerstreamof Sodom in global terms. “Shall the judge of the entire earth, not do justice,” he cried. Is it not true that when you judge the entire earth you waive the majority rule and do justice to the righteous on their own merit? (6 )

Abraham was not accusing G-d of injustice, he was making a legal argument. The judgment of an entire city, argued Abraham, should be akin to the judgment of the entire human race and the rule of majority should be suspended. (7)

Personal Application

G-d actually agreed with Abraham’s assertion and assured him that the righteous people of Sodom would not be slain. But the fact was that there were no righteous people in Sodom. In fact, G-d asserted, “Had I discovered even ten righteous men in all Sodom, I would have spared the entire city.” (8)

This teaches us an important lesson. We often judge ourselves in the court of our own opinion. We know our weaknesses and often let them drive our perception of ourselves. We think that if we are limited and weak then we must have failed.

The human psyche is filled with glitches. We suffer from all kinds of spiritual and emotional maladies. We are jealous, insecure, arrogant and narcissistic. We are indulgent, greedy, dishonest and impatient. The list goes on and on. We all know our shortcomings.

When the reflective glare of an honest measuring-stick becomes unforgiving, Abraham’s plea challenges us with astounding relevance.

When the entire earth is judged, the righteous are not punished on account of the wicked; they are judged by their own merit. In a similar vein, when we judge our entire persona we ought not dismiss our redeeming factors just because they are scarce.

Furthermore, if the righteous were slain on account of the wicked, humanity would become extinct. When we dismiss our strengths on account of our weaknesses we assure our own failure and slowly extinguish our spirit.

After the flood, one righteous family rebuilt the human race. (9) Similarly, highlighting our strengths and allowing our redeeming qualities to thrive will help us redeem ourselves.

Footnotes

  1. Genesis 18: 25.
  2. That Abraham spoke so harshly despite his otherwise gentle and generous nature underscores his incredible love for humanity. When mankind was endangered Abraham was not ambivalent and could not allow himself to be gentle. This should serve as a lesson to us all, not only for those times when our fellow faces physical danger, but also for those times when our fellow faces spiritual danger such as assimilation and the like. (Likutei Sichos (R. Menachem M Schneerson, Rebbe of Lubavitch, NY, 1902-1994), v. 11 p. 58-59.)
  3. Genesis 1: 4.
  4. Bereishit Rabba 2: 5 and 18: 25.
  5. See Panim Yafos (R. Pinchas Horowitz,Frankfurt, 1730-1805) on Genesis 1: 4.
  6. In effect, Abraham was pleading with G-d to arise from his seat of judgment and sit on his seat of compassion. R. Bachye (R. Bachya ben Asher, Saragossa, Spain, 1255-1340) explains that this is why Abraham continually addressed G-d as Elokim ( judge) and G-d consistently responded by his four letter name of compassion. Avraham thought that G-d was sitting in stern judgment of Sodom, but in truth G-d was already seated on the seat of compassion. See also Ramban (Nachmanides, R. Moshe Ben Nachman, Spain 1194-1270) on Genesis 18: 20.
  7. Genesis 18: 32. See R. Bachye, who explains that the power of ten to save the entire city underscores the importance the incredible sanctity of a Minyan (minimum quorum of ten men for purposes of congregational prayer). For more information see Iggeret Hakodesh ch. 23 (R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chassidus Chabad, 1745 – 1813).
  8. Gensis 18: 32.
  9. The rule of majority was suspended during the great flood. Noah and his family lived alongside the wicked who were slated for punishment. Yet, G-d spared the righteous, thus ensuring the survival of humanity and other species. Furthermore, immediately following the flood G-d pledged to never bring such destruction against humanity again. Though the pledge only referenced punishment by flood, Abraham saw the pledge as a reference to all forms of punishment. In the context of the flood, Abraham’s words can be interpreted as a statement rather than a question . “The judge of all the earth shall not do justice.” The one who judged the entire earth during the flood has pledged to never mete out such (blanket) justice again. (See Bereishit Rabba 49: 9 and Orach Chayim (R. Chaim Ibn Atar, Morocco, 1696-1743) on Genesis 9: 11.)

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