This week’s Torah portion is Vayera, Genesis 18:1 – 22:24.
Such chutzpah Avraham had. When God invited him into the conversation about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah, the patriarch could have demurred, seeing that he was standing in front of the Ultimate Power. If God thought it appropriate to destroy those sinful cities, who was Avraham to argue?
But no, Avraham stepped forward, and argued, respectfully but assertively, asking God, “Shall not the Judge of all the Earth do justly?” Would God really destroy the town if there were righteous people among the sinners?
Avraham bargained God from a hypothetical 50 righteous inhabitants of Sodom down to 10. And then he stopped, without explanation. Why should even one righteous person die? As we know, there weren’t 10, and so God sends two messengers to Sodom to rescue Avraham’s nephew, Lot, and his family. This way, justice was done — the wicked were destroyed, and the righteous were rescued (but read the rest of the parsha to see just how righteous they were).
None of us can aspire to the patriarch’s greatness, yet we can emulate his chutzpah. More and more, we are called to speak truth to power, as injustices in public life pile up. The easiest course would be to lie low — why worry when we are not the ones, this time, suffering discrimination?
Anyone who has even in passing learned anything of Jewish history knows that this is not the Jewish way. We have always followed Avraham’s example and protested on behalf of those who suffer injustice, often at the price of our lives.
In modern and contemporary history, every significant protest movement, every push for radical social change, has been overrepresented by Jews. Why should we no longer continue that tradition? If the patriarch could demand justice from God, how could we not demand the same from flesh-and-blood leaders?
When we act in accordance with our Jewish values, with their demand for both justice and compassion for all, only then are we able to be honest before God, however we define the Divine. But if we do not act thusly, and we adopt the ways of those around us who ignore the pleas of the oppressed, then how can we not expect to fare any better than did the doomed citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah.
Questions for discussion
- How do we know when to raise our voices and when to be silent? Can you recall a time when you were quiet when you should have spoken up, or a time when you protested when you should have silently waited?
- What are the middot (traits or characteristics) that most guide your actions and reactions in the realm of social justice? How do you cultivate those that help and counteract those that hold you back?
- How do you prioritize the problems to be addressed while balancing your family and job commitments?
Rabbi Saul Oresky is the rabbi of Mishkan Torah in Greenbelt.
This article originally appeared on Nov. 2, 2017.