This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, Genesis 18:1–22:24.
We love our superheroes. It is not unusual here at Tifereth Israel for people to discuss the latest superhero movie or TV show over our weekly Shabbat lunch. It is one of the few genres of entertainment that really crosses generational lines.
I have been reading superhero comics for more than 25 years. As a child, I often developed elaborate scenarios in my imagination in which I was the one gifted with powers, the hero.
As an adult, I have maintained a deep love of superhero stories. While I no longer imagine myself with powers (well, at least not as often), I appreciate how often the stories make me think about human nature. The superhero genre explores themes of trust, power, corruption and responsibility. Marvel Comics’ stories have been particularly good at exploring these themes ever since Peter Parker learned in 1962 that “with great power must also come — great responsibility.”
Biblical figures such as Avraham, Moshe, Miriam and others are the superheroes of the Jewish people. Just as with the superheroes of our comic books, these biblical figures sometimes succeed and sometimes fail in their proper use of God’s gifts and attention.
We are taught by the rabbis that Avraham was tested by God no fewer than 12 times. One of those tests took place when God informed Avraham that Sodom and Gomorrah were evil and planned to destroy them.
Avraham, in one of the more well-known scenes in the Torah, bargains with God on behalf of the people of Sodom, asking, “Will you even destroy the righteous with the wicked?” Beginning with 50 and working his way down to 10, Avraham challenges God to find enough righteous residents to save the city. Alas, Avraham’s bargaining does not succeed as God claims not to be able to find even 10 righteous residents.
Avraham, whose superpower is his relationship with God, seems to understand the responsibility that his power brings.
We often demand perfection from our heroes, be they real or fictional. Since most of our heroes are human, and to be human is to make mistakes, our superheroes are capable of letting us down when they turn out to be human just like the rest of us. In this story, I am equal parts proud of and disappointed in Avraham.
Why am I proud? I am proud because it must have taken great courage for him to stand up to God. Avraham is engaging in direct action to save others. Today, such direct action by those fighting for social justice often ends in arrests; by protesting God’s actions, Avraham was taking a risk that he and his family could be wiped out, just as God was about to do to Sodom’s residents.
Why am I disappointed? I am disappointed, and even a bit disturbed, by Avraham’s core argument. God is proposing to wipe out an entire city without warning for residents’ behavior (behavior that is never detailed in the Torah). What’s Avraham’s argument? The reason not to wipe out the city is that a few righteous might die with the wicked. Wiping out the wicked is fine, but it is the righteous, by Avraham’s reasoning, that most deserve to live. Avraham could have argued for repentance, an option offered to Nineveh in the Jonah story, but not to Sodom.
The concerns I laid out are the reason why the Torah and the stories of our superheroes are so valuable to learn about. Just a little digging leads to a wealth of moral and ethical discussions.
So, what does your household think? Do you think Avraham’s bargaining was enough or could he have gone further? Do you think that God was right in punishing a city, without warning, for its unlisted sins? Finally, what lessons can we learn from this story about how to take responsibility when we are placed in our own positions of power?
Eitan Gutin is the director of lifelong learning at Tifereth Israel Congregation in Washington.