Cantor Gershon Silins, 18 November 2016
This week’s parasha, Vayera, is dauntingly rich, with one amazing story after another, each one a story in which dramatic events happen to our most ancient ancestral figures. The reading tells the stories of Abraham’s three (angelic?) visitors, Abraham’s bargaining with God about the destruction of the Cities of the Plain, Lot’s visitors and Lot’s interaction with the Sodomites, Lot’s escape and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, how Abraham yet again passed off his wife Sarah as his sister, the birth of Isaac, the expulsion of Hagar, disputes over wells, and the binding of Isaac. The stories are intensely dramatic, and the characters are ethically complex. One of the most interesting characters in the stories is the character of God. The text gives us a glimpse of God’s motivations and intentions in a literary portrayal of a fascinating but ultimately opaque character. The text appears to be reporting God’s actual state of mind, a pretty long stretch even in ancient times. It would, in my view, be a mistake to believe that we can “know” something about God through this text, but we can perhaps begin to learn something about how the biblical author(s) saw God and our relationship to God.
In the midst of the stories, between the birth of a son and the destruction of a city, are three remarkable verses that might easily escape our notice, but can be seen as a kind of ethical fulcrum across which the larger arc of the Abraham story stretches. Here are these three verses, Gen 18:17-19: “Adonai then thought, ‘should I hide from Abraham what I am doing? Yet Abraham is certain to become a great and populous nation, and through him all the nations of the earth shall be blessed! For I have known him, so that he may teach his children and those who come after him to keep the way of Adonai, doing what is right and just, so that Adonai may fulfill for Abraham all that has been promised him.’” What can the text mean by saying that God has “known” Abraham? Doesn’t God know everyone? Unsurprisingly, the medieval commentator Rashi notices this as well, and points out that this usage of the Hebrew word translated here as “know” is always associated with love, the specific kind of love that impels one to want to know the object of that love; a close relationship with the thing that is known. God doesn’t choose Abraham because Abraham will obey God, though that is part of it. God chooses Abraham because Abraham will command his children and those who follow after them to keep God’s ways righteousness and justice, and (as appears to be the case here) because God sees Abraham as an ethically autonomous subject.
So when God divulges to Abraham his plan to destroy Sodom, he must be expecting a discussion, and this discussion must be one in which both parties are ethically equal – if either claims to have a privileged understanding of the way of righteousness and justice, then the entire conversation is a shadow play with no ethical reality, and is therefore itself false and misleading. In the conversation that soon follows, God tells Abraham of his plans to destroy Sodom; Abraham calls God to account and asks if God will destroy the city if certain numbers of innocent people can be found there. The issue for Abraham is not whether Sodom is wicked; it is whether God will sweep away the righteous along with the wicked. This problem had apparently not occurred to God until this point. Now, you might think that God thought of this all along and is merely testing Abraham. But if that’s the case, then, again, the ethical dimension is entirely missing from the discussion, and God is, well, playing God with Abraham, not truly listening to him. But God does listen to Abraham, accepting the premises of his argument, even though the resulting destruction goes on as planned, with, we fondly hope, no innocent lives destroyed.
So, in this story, who is teaching righteousness and justice to whom? It appears that it is Abraham who is the measured voice of justice and righteousness here, and God who would impetuously satisfy the call of anger without doing the difficult work of ethical calculation. Very few decisions are so obvious that they only have one possible result, and the ones we make in anger even more so. This is apparently true even for God, and it is right that it should be so. God is often described as knowing our every thought and judging us, but judging must go both ways in order to be genuine, as anyone with a teenage child painfully learns. And, like any parent (or any human who genuinely listens) the literary God of the Abraham story learns, not just facts, but that deeper thing, the incalculable cost of our ethical decisions.
The 18th Century philosopher Emmanuel Kant proposed a kind of ethical calculus, a tool for determining the right thing to do when faced with an ethical decision, which is called the Categorical Imperative. He believed that it was not just a way to make such decisions, but the only way to make them. Where most of the imperatives that drive our actions are contingent, meaning they only apply in some circumstances, a categorical imperative is an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. Kant’s proposal is this: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, desire that it should become a universal law. Subsequent philosophers have shown that this idea is flawed, but the Torah portion for today already knows this. Ethical decisions are never clear and obvious; they are virtually always messy and multi-valued. Kant said something else that more accurately reflects our human reality, and the reality that this week’s portion knows: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity can nothing straight be built.” Only by knowing how fragile our certainties are, can we hope to progress beyond them, no matter how divinely inspired we like to think we are.
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