Vayera 5783 – Abraham’s Chutzpah – the Foundation of Judaism

By: Dr. Joel Roffman

Well, things hadn’t been going so well. Adam and Eve screwed up their cushy surroundings in the Garden, Cain displayed his anger management problems in the most violent of ways. The Tower of Babel demonstrated the hubris that humans could have. Build a tower to the heavens? Why not? Gd created order, but humans created chaos. They understood neither freedom nor responsibility.

Then along came Abraham. What made him special? He left his land, as commanded by Gd, but what next? We read in Lech Lecha that when Abraham saw a quarrel between his herdsmen and his nephew Lot, he immediately saw the cause of the problem as too many cattle in too little land. His solution, the split with Lot, showed no animosity toward his nephew. “You go left, I’ll go right. Or if you go right, I’ll go left.” It was a very practical solution in which he cast no blame for the dispute.

Then, we read of a local war in which Lot is taken captive. Abraham gathers some troops, rescues Lot, and takes none of the spoils of this war, returning Lot to his home in Sodom. Rather than a simple nomad, Abraham is now shown to be an active man, taking control of the situation. Unlike Cain, he assumes responsibility. He is his brother’s keeper. He cast no judgement for where Lot chose to live.

Now comes Vayera – this week’s parashah. For the first time, we find a human challenging Gd, when Gd threatens to sweep away all of sodom because of the sinful behavior of its inhabitants. “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are 50 righteous people dwelling there? Will you have them all killed? Will not the judge of the world do justice?” How about if there are 40 righteous? 10? Whoa!! Was Abraham right to do this?

Well, if we look at the text before this conversation, Gd asks, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” The implication is that Gd wants Abraham to challenge Gd. Otherwise, why would Gd have said these words?

Contrast this with the story of Noah. In that instance, Gd also tells Noah what Gd is about to do – destroy all people, because of the violence between them. Noah does not protest. He accepted the verdict. “I’ll just build an arc, as you suggested.” Abraham challenged it. He understood the nature of collective responsibility. The people of Sodom were not Abraham’s brothers and sisters, so he went even further than he did in rescuing his nephew Lot. He understood the nature of human solidarity, attempting to save all of them.

So the big question: why did Gd want Abraham to challenge Gd? Abraham was to become the role model – indeed, the first in a line – of a new faith. One that would not defend the human status quo but would challenge it. Abraham’s show of courage in challenging Gd was, of course, to occur before his descendants would be able to challenge human rulers, as Moses, for instance, did. We Jews are the latest in a long line of those who challenge. We do not accept the world as it is. We do not accept suffering as our inevitable burden. We are not fatalists. We challenge the status quo. We see the world as it ought to be and try to set things on a course that will achieve just that.

There was not yet a nation for Abraham to lead, but he would be the role model for leadership as Judaism understands it. He took responsibility. He acted. He didn’t wait for others to act. Today, Judaism is Gd’s call to responsibility.

In the Universal Declaration of human Rights, drafted in the aftermath of WWII, and written by a commission headed by Eleanor Roosevelt, a total of 30 rights are named. The declaration was passed by the then-fledgling United Nations in 1948 and has since been translated into over 500 languages. We know most of them, almost intuitively by now – freedom from torture and degrading treatment, freedom of thought and conscience, and so on.

But there is one that is different, and may indeed have come from Abraham. That one is, “Responsibility to the Community.” We have the responsibility to insure, to the best of our ability, that basic rights and freedoms are enjoyed by people everywhere. This statement means that we are, indeed, our brothers’ and our sisters’ keeper. Abraham himself couldn’t have said it any better. Now, it’s up to all of us to act in such a way that would make him proud.