Vayera 5781 – Challenging Authority

By: Dr. Bill Sutker

Is it ever okay to challenge God’s decisions and actions? In our parashah, God reveals to Abraham that he will destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their wickedness. God had every right to destroy the cities, and it is likely that anyone who was familiar with the cities would agree. But then Abraham does the unthinkable. He challenges God. This is a phenomenal moment in Jewish history. It is the first time a human challenges God. No, it isn’t that Abraham tries to change God’s mind. It isn’t even that he tries to bargain with God to spare the city for a handful of righteous people if they are found in the city. It is in his bold questions which could implicate God for this action. “Would you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” Is Abraham speaking foolishly? Why would Abraham say such a thing?  Does Abraham believe God would do a grave injustice by slaying the innocent along with the wicked? Abraham knows he is going out on a limb, so he pleads with God not to get angry as he tries to save the wicked cities.  By what right does a mere mortal challenge God, Himself? The short answer is that God, Himself, signaled that he should. The words,” shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” are a clear hint that God wants Abraham to respond to him; otherwise why would he have said them?  What is amazing about this is that God intentionally involved Abraham in his decision. There is a give and take between Abraham and God. In the end, Abraham could not save the city, but as some scholars have put it,” Abraham has saved God.”

Abraham understood the principle of collective responsibility. The people of Sodom were not his brothers and sisters, so he was going above and beyond in what he did in trying to rescue them. He prayed on their behalf because he understood the idea of human solidarity and the nature of moral responsibility.

Chasidic Masters describe how Abraham represents the attribute of benevolence. So, if kindness is his innate characteristic trait, how is it possible for Abraham to speak harshly, especially to God? And not only did Abraham speak harshly with God, his remarks opened with a rebuke! What happened to Abraham’s more natural, kind demeanor? Abraham was not kind because it was his instinct, but because that was the proper way to serve God. So, when Abraham saw that he had to act in a way diametrically opposed to his natural tendencies, he did so with complete selflessness and commitment.  Instead of his nature dictating his behavior, the necessities of the hour determined Abraham’s course of action. Abraham’s actions, which were immediate and went against his inborn tendencies, are instructive for all generations. It teaches us that when a situation calls for it, we must move into action, with all our strength and with all of our means even if our natural instinct would have us do otherwise.

We hear or read about this sort of circumstance all the time. When an emergency occurs such as flames coming from a burning house or car, there are those ordinary people who do extraordinary things to try and save the victims. What is the process? What propels these men and women to defy the natural instinct for self-preservation and save a stranger? Is there a pause of deliberation when one consciously overrides personal risk in favor of another’s life? Or is it instinctive, an internal flip of a switch that sends one to act first and reflect later? A team of Yale researchers collected 51 statements by some of these situational heroes.

When interviewed, these heroes say:” I just did what I felt I needed to do. You don’t think about someone making that big a deal out of it.”

As I stated, kindness was embodied in Abraham. Abraham’s tendency was gentle, not combative; warm and respectful, not abrasive. This makes his protestation of Sodom and Gomorra’s impending destruction so remarkable. How did Abraham override his soft, obedient nature to stand up to the God he would die for?

Rashi said that Abraham trespassed his own proclivity for peaceful reconciliation into the foreign land of confrontation. Faced with the possibly unjust destruction of an entire city, Abraham discarded his natural composition and” approached to speak harshly.”

It happened one transformative moment. The heroes of the Yale study did not pause to weigh their predicament of another human against their own natural interests and habits. And Abraham did not consider the repercussions of challenging the all-powerful being whom he served.

But another question remains. Why did God want Abraham to challenge him? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said:  The answer is that Abraham was to become the role model and initiator of a new faith, one that would not defend the human status, but challenge it. Abraham had to have the courage to challenge God if his descendants were to challenge human rulers, as Moses and the prophets did. Jews do not accept the world that is. They challenge in the name of the world that ought to be. This is a critical turning point in human history: the birth of the world’s first religion of protest – a faith that challenges the world instead of accepting it. Abraham was the role model of leadership as Judaism understands it. He took personal and collective responsibility. He acted; he did not wait for others to act. Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.  Abraham felt a sense of ownership for the world in which he lived. If there was something wrong, it needed to be changed, even if it had been decreed by the will of God. Strong leadership determines the direction of the community and provides a valued role for the community and its members.

It happens to all of us. You are not quite seeing eye to eye with your boss on something, and you feel strongly enough about your opinion that you need to speak your mind and voice your concerns.  However, ideally, you would like to do that in a way that does not make you look like a know- it- all who is challenging his or her authority.  Is that a smart move?

Employment experts say regularly challenging your superiors could be good thing for your career – provided you are smart about it. Choosing your words carefully and finding the right forum to express your challenge could boost your career prospects, rather than damaging them. When dealing with a sticky work situation, it is best to be positive, sincere, and respectful. So how and when do you challenge your leader in a smart and effective way? Carefully consider time and place; start positive; ask questions; focus on results; respect the final decision.  In the end your boss has the final say. If he or she considers your opinion, only to rule against it, you need to respect that as Abraham did.

We must seek opportunities in our own generation to make our world a better place not only for ourselves but for the rest of humanity. As individuals, there are times we must follow Abraham’s example, challenging those in power and reminding them of their values.