Parashat Vayera: Arguing from a Place of Faith
Abraham’s conversation and his attempt at advocating on behalf of Sdom are a milestone in the annals of the Jewish people. “Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?” Generations of Abraham’s descendants will ponder this question.
by Rabbanit Nomi Berman, Rosh Beit Midrash
Maria and Joel Finkle Overseas Program, Midreshet Lindenbaum
“Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?” This was Abraham’s famous reaction to the bad news that Sdom was to be destroyed. Of all of the trials Abraham had faced, this one was particularly distant from him. Here, he wasn’t asked to uproot his family, face enemies and starvation, or sacrifice his son. In fact, we can hardly be sure that this was a trial at all. After all, all Hashem was doing here was sharing his plans with Abraham. Yet of all of Abraham’s trials, this is the only one that Abraham responded to by protesting Hashem’s decision.
The Torah records the following prophecy: “I will descend now and see, whether according to her cry, which has come to Me, they have done; I will wreak destruction upon them; and if not, I will know.” Then, the Torah relates that “Abraham was still standing before Hashem”. In the next verse, which contains a dialog between Abraham and Hashem, the Torah prefaces the interaction with the words “And Abraham approached and said”. What kind of “approach” was this?
Midrash Rabbah contains a fascinating passage about approaching Hashem:
And Abraham approached, and said, etc. R. Judah, R. Nehemiah, and the Rabbis each commented. R. Judah said: He drew near for battle, as it says: ‘And Yoav and the people that were with him drew forward to do battle against the Arameans (Chronicles 1:19). R. Nehemiah said: He drew near for conciliation, as in the verse, Then the children of Judah drew near to Joshua (Joshua 14). The Rabbis said: He approached for prayer, as it says, And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said: ‘O Lord, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel, etc.’ R. Elazar said: Interpret it in this way: I come, whether it be for battle, conciliation, or prayer.
All of the Tannaim (sages of the Mishna) understood that this wasn’t a physical approach, since the verse clearly states that Abraham was still standing before Hashem. Everyone concurs that this approach is indicative of how Abraham the matter. They all provide evidence to support their views from various verses in the Tanach, which attach a certain connotation to the concept of “approaching”. This, however, is where they begin to disagree. In the Book of Chronicles, “Yoav approaches” in order to do battle, which is far removed from Elijah’s approach, before his arrival on Mount Carmel.
All of the Tannaim involved in this dispute were clearly aware of all of the evidence. They all knew that there may be different interpretations of the concept of “approaching”. Each of them had apparently chosen the interpretation that they deemed most suitable to the setting. Perhaps, they were trying to deduce the tone Abraham had truly used by following the ensuing discussion. At first, the language used was clearly characteristic of prayer: “Behold now I have commenced to speak to the Lord, although I am dust and ashes.” Later, Abraham seems to be fighting God: “Far be it from You to do such a thing…” In the intermediate verses, Abraham was making a desperate attempt to reconcile Hashem: “Perhaps the fifty righteous men will be missing five. Will You destroy the entire city because of five?” R. Elazar reviews the transitions between these approaches and suggests an integrative interpretation: “I come, whether it be for battle, conciliation, or prayer.” Abraham was prepared to use any means necessary.
This wasn’t merely a debate over how to interpret Biblical text. In his book, Faith After the Holocaust, R. Eliezer Berkovits argues that Abraham’s conversation is a milestone in the annals of the Jewish people. “Will the Judge of the entire earth not perform justice?” Generations of Abraham’s descendants will ponder this question. How could a person say that he sees himself as the dust of the Earth, and then, accuse his creator of absolute injustice – all in the same conversation? The truth is that there is no contradiction here. Abraham was “going to war” against Hashem out of a place of faith.
May we merit to one day experience the judge of the entire world creating justice that all can perceive. Meanwhile, however, we should adopt the approach taken by Abraham, our forefather, namely to challenge out of a place of faith, and to strike a balance between asking difficult questions and praying.