Vayera presents us with one of the most powerful and challenging portions in Torah. It is filled with classic images and great moral questions. It begins with the mitzvah of hospitality and the proof text for visiting the sick and ends with the great challenge of the Akedah. In between we encounter the dysfunction of Lot and his daughters as well as that of Hagar, Sarah, Ishmael, and Isaac. And, as part of this dynamic portion we also read of the story of Sodom and Gomorrha. (Genesis 18)
There is this wonderful scene as God has decided to destroy these cities because of their outrageous behaviors and sins (18:20). Many of you remember the story as Abraham confronts God. The decision has been made to destroy the cities and the inhabitants. Abraham rises to challenge God asking if God even intends to destroy the innocent with the guilty. They then have this almost humorous dialogue arguing about the minimal number of righteous people able to save the cities. Abraham argues with God challenging the deity in 18:25, “shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly”? Could Abraham be the symbol of so many centuries of people calling out to some god, asking “why”?
We continue to ask this question. History is a brutal teacher. All too often the innocent is caught up with the evil and they are destroyed as well. Some of us are old enough to remember when terms like “collateral damage” were used to “explain” exactly what Genesis 18 asks. This seems to be, sadly enough, an enduring question. We have been taught that this story teaches that Judaism welcomes us questioning what we call, in most cases, God. Sadly, the lesson is also that the decision had been made and that the cities were destroyed, innocent along with the sinners. What this also teaches is that we do have the freedom, maybe even the obligation, to question, even in the face of overwhelming odds. When we see injustice, we are to question and probe the “why”. This leads to the Jewish value that we are all responsible for each other, that silence in the face of evil is acceptance. We are all linked, in some way. Mordecai Kaplan reminded us of this when he noted that “Every human being is both an individual and a member of a people, a church or nation.” He linked this concept to that of the cells in our body speaking of the inter-connectedness of us all. “Each cell, each organ of the human body, not only keeps itself alive, but also keeps the rest of the body alive. If that procedure extended to humanity as a whole, what a world this would be.” (1). A lovely concept to remember as we contemplate elections, division, antisemitism, and the eternal question: “why”?
Rabbi Richard F. Address
(1): A Year With Mordecai Kaplan. Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, ed. p.15
Rabbi Richard F. Address, D.Min, is the Founder and Director of www.jewishsacredaging.com. Rabbi Address served for over three decades on staff of the Union for Reform Judaism; first as a Regional Director and then, beginning in 1997, as Founder and Director of the URJ’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns and served as a specialist and consultant for the North American Reform Movement in the areas of family related programming. Rabbi Address was ordained from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1972 and began his rabbinic career in Los Angeles congregations. He also served as a part time rabbi for Beth Hillel in Carmel, NJ while regional director and, after his URJ tenure, served as senior rabbi of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ from 2011-2014.