Justice, tzedakah, is one of the recurring themes in this morning’s Torah portion, Vayera. As God contemplates the fate of the Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities in the Jordan River Valley, God decides to hire a consultant.
Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do… for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…—tzedakah u’mishpat.
God tells Abraham about the plan to destroy the two cities because of the extreme wickedness of their inhabitants. Abraham immediately challenges God: Ha’af tispeh tzadik im rasha —
Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty? What if there should be fifty innocent within the city; will You then wipe out the place and not forgive it for the sake of the innocent fifty who are in it?… Far be it from You… to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty…
God is convinced, promising “If I find within the city of Sodom fifty innocent ones, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”
This is just the opening salvo in the negotiation. Abraham lowers the threshold to 45, then 40, 30, 20, and finally 10 innocent people to save the remainder of the population. God agrees every time.
It seems, based on God’s original assessment, that this was the plan all along. After all, God has already identified Abraham as someone who will pass on the values of tzedakah and mishpat — justice and righteousness — to his children.
It turns out that there are not even 10 righteous individuals in the two cities, leaving God free to carry out the original sentence. Perhaps if Abraham had gone still lower… God would probably have agreed.
This story depicts Abraham at his best. He puts everything on the line for the sake of his fellow human beings. These particular human beings are the worst of the worst, but Abraham cannot sit idly by, even for such a depraved population.
Soon afterwards, Abraham and Sarah find themselves the land of Gerar, which is near Gaza. As in a prior encounter with Pharaoh in Egypt, Abraham passes off his wife, Sarah, as his sister. So what happens? The King, Avimelech, thinking that she is single, has Sarah brought into his household. [She is 89 years old at the time, but never mind.]
Before anything happens, God speaks to Avimelech in a dream. “You are to die because of the woman you have taken, for she is a married woman!”
Still in the dream, Avimelech defends himself. “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent? — ha’goy gam tzadik ta’harog? Sound familiar? Avimelech makes the argument with God on his own behalf as Abraham made earlier on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah. God agrees, and instructs Avimelech to return Sarah to her husband.
The next day, Avimelech confronts Abraham. “What did I ever do to you? You’ve brought disaster upon us. You have done things to me that ought not to be done!”
Abraham’s response is difficult to hear. “I thought,” he says, “surely there is no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.” (Gen. 20:11) Then he offers some weak excuse explaining how Sarah is really his half-sister, and he did not technically lie. Whether she is his sister or not is irrelevant. What matters is his hiding the fact that she is a married woman.
Abraham, who had just recently behaved so nobly, now thinks only of himself. He puts a lot of people in danger. First of all, Sarah. As soon as they arrive, she is taken to the palace, presumably to be made part of the harem. Avimelech is endangered, as even a King is not allowed to be with a married woman. And finally, because Abraham is, well Abraham, Avimelech’s entire household is stricken with temporary infertility, merely for bringing Sarah in to the palace. If things had gone further, God’s wrath would have turned lethal.
Abraham assumes the worst of Avimelech and his people. He condemns them before he even meets them. But Abraham is wrong. These are not wicked people. As it turns out, Avimelech is a God-fearing man, with a sense of justice.
This story has close parallels to the earlier story. Only this time, it is Avimelech playing the role of the prophet standing in the breach, arguing for justice against a vengeful God. In this case, like the previous, God wants to be convinced. God wants tzedakah, justice, to reign. God does not want the innocent to suffer the fate of the guilty. As before, Abraham must personally intercede, praying to God for the health and well-being of Avimelech and his household. But Abraham’s prayers come only after Avimelech bribes presents him with sheep, oxen, servants, land, and silver.
Abraham does not come out well in this story. Is this the same person who put everything on the line to argue with God on behalf of people that he knew were wicked? He is supposed to be the optimist, the one devoted to bringing justice into the world. He should at least have given Avimelech the benefit of the doubt.
What are we to make of Abraham? The Torah does not hold back in presenting its heroes as flawed individuals. They make mistakes. Sometimes, their opponents have qualities going for them as well. The underlying theme of these two stories is tzedakah. God wants justice. God does not want the innocent to suffer punishments that should be reserved just for the wicked. And in both stories, it seems that God is not capable of holding back the injustice without human intercession.
Abraham’s abrupt turn from being a justice-hero to behaving with selfishness and distrust teaches us something about the impact that fear can have, even on the best of us. Abraham is afraid. He says so himself. His fear leads him to treat others unfairly, including his own wife. He succumbs to stereotypes.
And Abraham, remember, is a good man. He is the one whom God has selected to be a blessing to the world, and to teach his children about justice and righteousness. If Abraham is susceptible to fear, how much the more so are we!
I don’t think I need to detail the many examples of how fear leads to injustice. In this case, the victim was King Avimelech, a person in power. But usually, the ones who are most harmed by fear and distrust are those without power.
The lesson from both stories is that God needs human intercessors to bring tzedakah into the world. Any of us has the capacity to be such an intercessor, just as any of us has the capacity, through fear, to turn our backs on our brothers and sisters.
As Jews, we take this on as a special obligation, going all the way back to Abraham, whom God selected to “instruct his children… to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right.”
May we always strive to live up to that ideal.