Vayera! A portion that will challenge us, even in the best of times. But this week, well, it hits us with a gut punch. The portion is filled with powerful scenes, from the three “visitors” to Abraham’s tent and the promise of Isaac to stories of total family dysfunction with Lot and his daughters, Sara, Hagar, Ishmael, and Abraham. Of course, the concluding scene in chapter 22 is the haunting Akedah, the binding of Isaac. There is so much in this portion that speaks to our lives and the challenges before us.
Yet, no doubt, many who study this portion this Shabbat will go directly to Genesis 18:16-32. It is here that one of the great scenes in Torah takes place, the argument/discussion/confrontation between God and Abraham over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The dialogue between them over saving innocent lives during disaster and destruction. The oh so timely verse, as if drawn from today’s headlines in 18:25: “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 from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” The result of the discussion? The cities are destroyed, innocent and guilty alike!
It is always fascinating to so many of us that, week to week, the Torah somehow speaks to what we are living through. This question, in a variety of ways, is being asked daily. Some of it with passion, grief, compassion, and sensitivity, and sometime with violence and more evil. In the end of the scene God says if there are ten innocents, the cities will be saved. Not so then. But what of now? History has taught us that there are times in history when evil exists and raises its sword and to pacify it or ignore it only leads to more evil. Are we at that point now in the Middle East? Is that what the Torah is telling us? How many other moments Torah and history have we witnessed innocents killed along with the guilty? Human history is a recurring tale of woe. Can there be any way out of this too often repeated cycle? How shall we, a people called to a life of justice and mercy, of hesed ; how can we deal with Abraham’s question, a question that is being asked now, every day?
This verse, 18:25, is not easy to read or study. How do you react to this verse? How do you, can you protect the innocents while eradicating evil? Is there a difference in the words which appear in this section between Tzedek and mishpat? How can we understand this story in the light of the Gaza war? There are no easy answers. Yet, maybe, in some small way, as you discuss this portion and, I hope, these key verses, some small pathway can be shared that will allow us to move forward. It IS up to us.
Rabbi Richard F Address
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.