Tzedakah or Selfishness – Vayera 5779

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.

Becoming That Kind of Person – Vayera 5774

Parshat Vayera begins with Abraham sitting in his tent, during the hottest part of the day.  Last week’s parshah ended with Abraham performing a brit milah on all of the male members of the household, including himself.

The midrash connects them together, explaining that it is the third day after Abraham circumcised himself, at 100 years of age.  This is when the pain of the recovery is most intense.

So there he is, sitting in his tent.  It’s hot.  He’s in pain.  He looks up, and he see three distant figures approaching.

So what does he do?  Remember, this is the Middle East.

He does not reach for his shotgun.  He does not turn the other way, and pretend he didn’t see them.  He does not send one of his able-bodied servants to go find out who they are.

No, he rushes out to greet them.  He bows to the ground, and insists that they come in to rest.

“You must be tired, come in for a while.  Relax in the shade.  Wash your feet.  Have something to eat and drink.”

The three men agree, and Abraham starts rushing about, instructing household to to prepare food and drink for them.  He slaughters a calf himself.  While they are eating, Abraham stands before them, waiting on them like a servant.

Abraham’s behavior is remarkable.  While there is a code of hospitality in the Middle East,  Abraham goes above and beyond it.  It is not only that Abraham and Sarah had an “open-door” policy, welcoming visitors to their home.  They practiced radical hospitality.

This is not normal behavior.  Most of us, if we were recuperating from surgery, would not want to throw a dinner party and invite all our friends, not to mention strangers.  The kind of person who practices radical hospitality is the kind of person who has that quality down to his core.  Abraham is that kind of guy.

How does a person get like that?

Well, there is the rare person, like Abraham, who is simply born with that kind of generous spirit  But for most of us, it takes education from an early age.

Perhaps that explains the blessing that comes at the end of Abraham’s encounter with the three men, who turn out to have been angels.

“I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what He has promised him.”  (Genesis 18:19)

Character is built through education.  Part of God’s blessing to Abraham is a charge to instructs his children so that they become “that kind of person.”

What does it mean to be children of Abraham?  To serve.  To recognize that our obligations to others go beyond the narrow circles of our families and friends.  It extends to people we don’t know.  It may even extend to people who hold different values than us.

Two of the angels leave Abraham’s presence, and Abraham is left talking with God.  God reveals the plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, two depraved cities whose wickedness has provoked God’s anger.

Abraham boldly responds to God’s revelation with a challenge.  “Ha-shofet kol ha-aretz lo ya-aseh mishpat?  Shall the judge of all the earth not perform justice?”  This begins Abraham’s pleading with God to save the wicked people of Sodom and Gomorrah on account of the merit of 50, then 45, 40, 30, 20, and finally just 10 righteous people living among them.  Abraham is making this argument on behalf of people who do not share his values, people who probably deserve the punishment that God is about to mete out against them.

Indeed, Abraham has lived up to the blessing that God has just bestowed upon him.

As Jews, we look to Abraham as our Patriarch.  God’s covenant with him, and Abraham’s behavior, model for us the kind of role we are asked to have in the world.  And the message is that our compassion towards others, our concern for justice, must not be limited to our own.  It is clear from both of these stories that compassion must extend to people outside the circles of our families and friends.  Our pursuit of justice must reach those who do not necessarily share the same values and beliefs as us.

As Abraham’s descendants, we are asked to instruct our collective children about was is just and right.  The goal is to turn them into the kind of people who would rush out of their homes to take care of someone whom they did not know, or stand up to shout for compassion and justice on behalf of others.

That kind of training happens when we surround the next generation by a community that expresses those values through action on a regular basis.

The Torah subtly demonstrates how this kind of moral education can be successful.  One chapter later, the scene shifts to the city of Sodom.  Abraham’s nephew Lot happens to live there.  Lot’s father had died young, and so he grew up in Abraham and Sarah’s household, where he was raised by his Aunt and Uncle.  He must have learned something by their example.

When two of the three angels that had visited Abraham continue their travel, they go to Sodom.  This is how the Torah describes what happens when they get there:

“The two angels arrived in Sodom in the evening, as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to greet them and, bowing low with his face to the ground, he said, ‘Please, my lords, turn aside to your servant’s house to spend the night, and bathe your feet; then you may be on your way early.'”  (Genesis 19:1-2)

It seems that Lot learned a lot growing up in his aunt and uncle’s home.  He has become the kind of person who practices radical hospitality.  God’s blessing of Abraham was well-placed.  May we live up to it.