Reading this week’s Torah portion, Vayera, my eye was caught by something I’d never noticed before. It arises from reading two separate stories as a related pair.
Story #1: God & Abraham, Sodom & Gomorrah
Sodom and Gomorrah are thoroughly corrupt. Their depravity is illustrated by the way in which they treat two strangers who are welcomed by Abraham’s nephew, Lot. All of the men of Sodom, young and old, surround Lot’s home. They shout “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may be intimate with them.” Lot refuses, the situation devolves until violence is imminent and, ultimately, Lot must flee with his family and the visitors.
God has decided to destroy such evil but must include Abraham in His decision-making. God says, “…for I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right…” Abraham responds to God’s plan by famously arguing back: “Will you sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?” Eventually, God relents and promises not to destroy the town if as few as ten righteous people are there.
According to Robert Alter, it is this act of standing up for justice by which Abraham merits the child for whom he and Sarah have waited, Isaac. God now knows that the covenant will be built on a foundation of justice and righteousness.
But it takes more than that one act.
Story #2: God, Avimelech, Sarah and Abraham
Immediately after Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed Abraham and Sarah journey to the Negev desert. Fearing for his safety, he announces that Sarah is his sister. King Avimelech sees what a beautiful woman she is and, thinking through no fault of his own) that she is unmarried, takes her into his palace. Before Avimelech sleeps with her, God comes to him in a dream and warns Avimelech that he will die because Sarah is, in fact, a married woman. And Avimelech’s response? “O Lord, will you slay people even though innocent?” Avimelech then proceeds to explain the circumstances by which he is innocent.
Avimelech’s words echo precisely Abraham’s. In a fascinating turn, the man who established himself as a steward of justice has now put an innocent man in mortal jeopardy by lying. The text wants us to compare them directly by putting in Avimelech’s mouth the self-same words spoken by Avraham only one chapter earlier.
Righteousness . . . or Self-Righteousness?
It is as if, having stood against the Sovereign of the universe on behalf of justice, Abraham believes his own press: he is a righteous man. Therefore, his logic seemingly is, he cannot commit an injustice.
And yet, he does, perhaps assuming that no one outside his covenant can be decent. When confronted, he responds to Avimelech, saying “I thought . . . surely there was no fear of God in this place, and they will kill me because of my wife.”
Much to Abraham’s surprise, there are God-fearing people – people of decency and honesty and respect – to be found beyond his own family, beyond his own religion and his own God.
Abraham learns a lesson difficult for many of us today, as political positions harden in America. We become convinced enough of the rightness of our own cause that we can’t imagine that there might be rightness on the other side.
But there might be. Given the limited nature of each person’s vision, it naturally happens that there is some truth if not in all positions then, certainly, in many other than our own. What can Democrats learn from Republicans and Republicans from Democrats? What can centrists learn from extremists and vice-versa? What can the religious learn from the secular and how might so-called secular knowledge enrich the understanding of the religious? How might Jews learn from Buddhists who learn from Christians who learn from Taoists who learn from Muslims?
The Dalai Llama, one of the world’s spiritual greats, insists on dialogue with those of other religious traditions in order to learn and be enlightened about his own faith. I remember learning of him asking rabbis how Jews had managed to persist for two thousand years while separated from our homeland – a lesson from which Tibetans, in exile, might benefit.
There are mentsches everywhere, both within and without our community. And, conversely, there are intolerant bigots and evildoers within our community, as well as outside.
Abraham had reached a peak of understanding and commitment, but that wasn’t enough to keep him from a moral blindness of his own. That was something against which he needed to learn to be vigilant. And something that was shown him by a man, in a place, in which he least expected to find it.
Perhaps we can learn to find insight and righteousness where we least expect to find it as well.