Rabbi Ariel Friedlander – 4th Nobember 2020
In this week’s parasha, as the covenantal relationship between Abraham and Adonai begins to develop, we can hardly believe Abraham’s chutzpah. Not only does he question Adonai, but then Abraham argues with Adonai and, as if that wasn’t enough, he somehow convinces Adonai to back down from a decision that has already been made. Abraham makes a cogent and humble case that it is unjust for the innocent to suffer with the guilty, and the plan is immediately recalibrated, several times. Chutzpahdik! Yet Adonai accepts all the corrections that Abraham offers in his quest for justice. Unfortunately, not one innocent person can be found, and Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed.
If we wonder why Adonai appears to be so lenient when directly challenged, a clue may be found a few verses earlier:
“Now Adonai had said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do … for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of Adonai by doing what is just and right”1
However omnipotent Adonai may be, in this relationship model Abraham is offered a behind-the-scenes view of how justice works. Adonai says that this is a kind of professional development session to help Abraham instruct subsequent generations how to follow a just and right path. And Abraham shows that he has a natural instinct for the task. He speaks up where he sees injustice, his words are heard, and the system is changed. The two of them have a positive experience together, which bodes well for the future.
Or does it? If this example teaches that the human partner in the covenantal relationship plays an active role in determining what is right and wrong, isn’t there a slippery slope towards making decisions based on what you want, rather than what you should do? The parasha responds to this question with the story of the binding of Isaac.
Isaac represents everything that God has promised Abraham in exchange for his loyalty. God now says:
“Take your son, your favourite, the one that you love, Isaac; and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I will point out to you.” 2
God uses the same words of command, “lech lecha”, as God did in the original invitation to the Covenant, but this time God requires something terrible from Abraham, a sacrifice that seems unbearable to us. And what does Abraham say? Not one word! He gets up early the next morning, and follows God’s commands to the letter. In the end, Abraham’s hand is stayed at the last minute, and an unlucky ram is sacrificed instead of Isaac. However, at no point in the text do we see any sign of Abraham questioning God’s decision. In this example of the covenantal relationship, the human partner submits entirely to the will of God, proving their faith by their deeds and their acceptance of the consequences of their actions. But is this not also a slippery slope?
If the human role in the brit is always to submit, never thinking about what we are doing, we risk becoming mindlessly obedient slaves to the system. Suffering becomes a product of God’s will. How then could we become aware of injustice, and speak up against it?
This portion presents us with two powerful principles, each at the opposite end of the spectrum from the other. They are both valid responses to our relationship with God and available for us to choose. And that is what we need to learn: how to make the appropriate choice for the situation. Abraham teaches us that different situations require different responses. There is a time to speak up, and a time to submit. The challenge for us is to figure out which is which.
As Abraham is in the early stages of his relationship with Adonai, so are we. Before we must decide how to respond, shouldn’t we learn more about our own relationships? We might begin with some instruction from Abraham. The Torah portion tells of his hospitality, his sense of justice and his faith. He was someone who reached out to strangers, offering physical sustenance and moral support. We have a long history of knowing what it is like to be strangers, exiles, refugees. We cannot let this empathy be corrupted by the isolation of social distancing and lockdown.
So let us focus on a positive perspective – despite the current restrictions, what is possible? Look for local projects that are offering a community response to tackling food poverty.3 Perhaps you can take part in the Age UK campaign to alleviate loneliness amongst older people.4 Are there letters you can write or phonecalls you can make on behalf of programmes5 that support refugees, or that fight hate crimes, or that raise awareness about mental health in your borough or city?
As we lift up our eyes, may we become aware of what is just and right. As we learn what it means to be a partner with Adonai, may we find the strength and the flexibility to know when to be a chutzpadik and when to yield.
1Genesis 18: 17 & 19
3for example in London there is https://www.jw3.org.uk/help-us-now
4for example https://www.vccp.com/work/cadbury/donate-your-words/
5for example https://www.citizensuk.org/national_campaigns
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