Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Last week we discussed the unique character of Avraham Avinu.  The picture we presented was that the trait which made him worthy of founding the covenantal community of the Jewish people was his ability to see the spiritual potential in every circumstance.  He had this uncanny knack to see through the mundane surface to glimpse the holy essence lurking behind every profane fa├žade.  This was very extraordinary, but how does this talent translate into a usable resource for humankind?  What is the benefit of this phenomenon to the rest of us?  If this power of his doesn't impact others, then there is no advantage to Avraham over Noach who had no influence on his generation, and sailed, basically, alone.  Avraham's greatness must emerge from his relevance.  I believe that the answer to this question is found in this week's Torah reading in an extremely powerful scene played out between God and Avraham.                            

The incident is readily recognizable to us all.  The three guests/angels have just departed from their visit to Avraham to destroy the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and God makes the following declaration, apparently to us the readers (The Midrash suggests that this was said to a heavenly court):  Shall I conceal from Avraham what I am doing?  And Avraham will become a great and powerful nation, and all the nations of the world will be blessed through him. For I have known him because he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him (Genesis 18:17-19).  First of all, we must notice that God informs us that Avraham's influence will spread to his progeny and, through his blessings, to the entire world.  Avraham is relevant because he leads his flock by both instruction and example to do acts of kindness and righteousness.  All that is important, but what is the point of God telling him what's going to happen to Sodom and Gomorrah? 

            Before I answer my query, please, allow a short digression.  There is a certain similarity between our case and the incident that happened to Moshe after the sin of the Golden Calf.  I hope you remember that God announces at that time that the Jewish nation will be destroyed for their immediate slide in to idolatry after the giving of the Ten Commandments.  That situation is different for two crucial reasons.  First of all, that instance involved the Jews and they are the main focus of our Torah, and Moshe is the leader and, therefore responsible for them.  Secondly, Moshe is, at least theoretically, enticed by the offer made to him that he would become the Patriarch of a new Jewish nation.  In our case, Avraham has no accountability for the behavior of the citizens of Sodom.  He has nothing to do with them.  Plus, he has already expressed his contempt for them and their leader back in chapter fourteen.  He knew full well that they were a nasty bunch.  Nevertheless he pleads and begs for their salvation. 

            This brings me to a point from last week's article.  A clear thinking reader wrote me that my article was faulty.  She observed that Avraham's amazing abilities of observation weren't enough.  She noted that according to Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1917-1972) the true spiritual test is to pray with one's feet.  He was right.  Observing phenomena isn't enough.  We must act.  I wrote back to her to be patient, that I would finish the thought this week.  I strongly believe that this week's parsha completes the material begun last week.

            Last week we learned that Avraham had amazing, perhaps supernatural, powers of observation.  He was the Sherlock Holmes of religious personalities.  He saw spiritual realities, to which the rest of mankind was oblivious.  Through that capability, he found God.  God responded to this victor of the cosmic game of Hide and Seek, by blessing him with an eternal covenant.  This week we discover that having these super powers carries heavy responsibilities.   Knowing what others can't understand weighs heavily on the prophet.  It's painful to notice spiritual decay.   Last week God helped Avraham to see; this week God teaches him to speak. 

            When God informs Avraham of the imminent destruction of Sodom, the purpose is to teach him that he must care about this situation and react forcefully to this emergency.  That's what prophets do.  That what Jews do.  We've learned the lesson pretty well.  It's not a coincidence that Jews have been in the forefront of every case of social injustice in the 20th century, Civil Rights, Trade Unions, Cambodia, Darfur, and the list goes on.  I'm not saying that we always get it right; I'm saying that we care in ways foreign to other ethnicities, and this our legacy from Avraham.  I believe it is important to point out that Avraham was defending a despicable group, whose life style and philosophy were antithetical to every fiber of his being.  We don't avoid righteous principles, because it may aid unsavory characters.  And Avraham adds one more teaching to this concept.  We do it modestly.  Avraham tells God that he is nothing but dust and ashes. (verse 27).  Normally, we understand this humility as directed to God, as in 'who am I to debate with You, God.'  But I think that we can also understand Avraham declaring that he's no better than any other human being.

            When we reread these verses every year I hope we feel pride in our dear forebear.  But I really hope that we also find the courage to act on our principles.  It was great to discover last week that our great grandfather noticed things undiscerned by others.  It's even greater to know that he responded forcefully to these causes.  We must all emulate him by hearing when he 'commands his children and his household after him,' and heeding that call by acting upon his principles. 



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